"I am not one who was born in the custody of wisdom. I am one who is fond of olden times and intense in quest of the sacred knowing of the ancients." Gustave Courbet

23 August 2020


Rachel Lambert Mellon gives her account of designing the iconic Kennedy Rose Garden ...
We continued to dig. The garden area was filled with rubble and relics and yielded many curiosities, such as Civil War horseshoes and bits of pots from the old greenhouses. We dug out the whole area to a depth of four feet and filled it with fertile soil. With new soil in place and Mr. Williams at work, my thoughts turned to finding available plant material. The magnolias I imagined planting there would be hard to find.
There were, however, seemingly forgotten groves of interesting trees in the vast public land of the federal city, where old plant material had been allowed to grow in a state of apparent abandon. Near the Tidal Basin and behind the rambling wartime Navy buildings (since torn down) I finally found the four magnolias. Forgotten for many years, these trees had survived both men and war. They were balled and burlapped and moved by a crane from obscurity to the White House, where they took root in President Kennedy’s Rose Garden.
Their presence changed the entire character of this empty space. Their natural untended growth filled the four bare corners. The tree whose trunk reached higher than the others was planted in the northeast corner by the White House. Crowded by other trees in its previous planting ground, this magnolia had reached toward the light; it had gained a height not often found in Magnolia soulangeana, which tend to spread after a certain period of upward growth. 
When the planting was completed, the trees were pruned to give them strength and to create the shape each corner demanded. The special pruning was done by Everett Hicks, an exceptional man in his field. He had been trained by, and spent most of this life with, the Davey Tree Company. He combined a knowledge of pruning large trees with the eye and talent of a sculptor. These magnolias, my original inspiration, were not disappointing when they were in place. They gave life to what had been a cold, bleak space.
There is often unspoken encouragement when trees or shrubs are planted and you review the original plan to see how the reality of three dimensions measures up. Now in the Rose Garden shadows gave a quality of aliveness that could be repeated by the smaller trees I hoped to plant in the two flanking twelve-foot borders. The length of the borders would allow for five trees on each side. The force of the summer sun that bakes the city of Washington would be broken by the height and width of these trees.

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