Public figures like Melania Trump, the former first lady, continue to generate substantial discussion even after exiting the White House. She has generally refrained from public appearances and social media engagement since President Joe Biden’s inauguration. However, when Melania decided to break her silence to respond to a long-standing critique, it was a moment of surprise for many.
The Tradition of Personalizing the White House
Historically, first ladies have customized the White House in their unique ways, often through interior redesigns or refurbishments. The Rose Garden, famously transformed by Jackie Kennedy, is perhaps the most well-known illustration of this. This horticultural area was originally established by First Lady Ellen Wilson, replacing the colonial garden created by First Lady Edith Roosevelt, President Theodore Roosevelt’s wife.
Jackie Kennedy enlisted landscape designer Rachel Lambert Mellon to rejuvenate the Rose Garden in 1962. Mellon created an enchanting space brimming with vibrant flower beds and charming roses. The garden has since served as a tranquil haven for presidents to ponder and find solace during crises. The Rose Garden, under various presidencies, has also served as a picturesque backdrop for press conferences and special occasions.
Melania Trump’s Renovation of the Rose Garden
When Melania Trump unveiled her 2020 renovation of the Rose Garden, the decision was initially welcomed. She focused on enhancing the garden’s infrastructure, incorporating new audio-visual equipment, cameras, paving, lighting, and drainage. In addition, she prioritized accessibility for individuals with disabilities.
The most striking addition to the garden was a grand limestone pathway bordering the central lawn, with treeless beds on either side. This redesign represented one of Melania’s final acts as First Lady, and it was met with mixed reactions. Critics felt that the garden now resembled a large TV stage rather than a lush, serene area.
Controversies and Reactions
The backlash from the public was particularly fierce regarding the removal of roses and the elimination of 10 crabapple trees planted during John F. Kennedy’s term. Andrea Mitchell, NBC News Chief and Washington Correspondent, questioned the disappearance of the trees, while New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow described the renovations as a ‘Marie Antoinette moment’ amidst the ongoing pandemic and rising unemployment.
The rationale for Melania’s changes, such as the removal of the crabapple trees due to excessive shadowing of other flowers, was largely overlooked. Despite C-Span reporting that these trees would be replanted elsewhere on the White House grounds, a petition to restore the Rose Garden to its former state gathered over 80,000 signatures.
Melania refrained from responding to the criticism until August 2021, around the first anniversary of the renovations, when presidential historian and author Michael Beschloss branded her redesign as an ‘evisceration.’ Melania’s office, which rarely engages with such issues, decided to counter the allegations.
Melania clarified that Beschloss had used a misleading image of the garden before her chosen roses had bloomed. This defense was seemingly supported by current First Lady Jill Biden, who shared a photo of Melania’s blooming roses in May.