Shocking Things You Didn’t Know About the White House Grounds

Many Americans know a few things about the White House. But how often do you hear interesting details about the White House grounds? There are tennis courts, swimming pools, patios, porches, presidential gardens, and more on the White House grounds. And of course, there’s a lot of interesting history behind each feature on the 18 acres at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Below, check out the most amazing — even shocking — secrets you’ve never heard about the presidential gardens and White House grounds.

1. John F. Kennedy had the lawn spray-painted green

White House in Washington D C From front lawn view
Kennedy was very particular about his lawn. | hanusst/iStock/Getty Images

Over the years, presidents have had very different visions for the lawns and gardens at the White House. But Elle Decor reports that when the Kennedys arrived at the White House, the White House grounds didn’t measure up to the president’s standards. “It is driving the President crazy,” Jacqueline Kennedy said. “And I agree with him.” At the Kennedys’ weekend retreat in Virginia, she said, the lawn “looks like green velvet — and this place looks as well as cornfields in Virginia.” National Park Service employees did everything they could to try to spruce up the grounds. That included spray-painting the brown patches in the lawn before important guests arrived.

Next: Richard Nixon’s daughter celebrated this milestone in the presidential gardens.

2. Richard Nixon’s daughter had the first wedding in the Rose Garden

Patricia Nixon wedding rose garden
They added extra roses for the ceremony. | Richard Nixon Foundaton via Youtube

Numerous weddings have taken place at the White House throughout American history. But Elle Decor reports that Richard Nixon’s daughter Tricia had the first wedding to take place in the Rose Garden on the White House grounds. Staff added extra roses and gardenias to the garden for the wedding. And interestingly enough, the Rose Garden was a pet project of John F. Kennedy, who dedicated it as the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden on April 22, 1965. The only other outdoor White House wedding took place during the Clinton administration, when Hillary Rodham Clinton’s brother Anthony Rodham married Nicole Boxer.

Next: Jimmy Carter made this unlikely addition to the White House grounds.

3. Jimmy Carter built a treehouse on the White House grounds

Jimmy Carter Tree house
There were a couple presidents who helped their kids feel at home. | The White House Historical Association

Elle Decor notes that Jimmy Carter had a tree house built on the White House grounds for his young daughter, Amy. She used it often for sleepovers with friends, and the Secret Service supervised. And Carter wasn’t the only president to make some changes to the White House grounds for one of the residence’s youngest occupants. As The Spruce reports, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had swings, sandboxes, and slides built on the South Lawn for their grandchildren. John F. Kennedy had a swing set and jungle gym installed for Caroline and John F. Kennedy, Jr. And Barack and Michelle Obama installed a swingset for their daughters, Malia and Sasha.

Next: Gerald Ford loved this feature of the White House grounds. 

4. Gerald Ford conducted press conferences from an outdoor swimming pool

Gerald Ford Swimming
He was an avid swimmer. | Ford Library

There have been several swimming pools on the White House grounds (including an indoor pool installed by Franklin D. Roosevelt). But The Spruce reports that one president who took full advantage was Gerald Ford. In 1975, staff installed an outdoor swimming pool near the tennis courts. Ford made swimming a near-daily habit. And he even conducted press conferences while swimming laps in the pool. The pool is located behind the West Wing, surrounded by trees and accompanied by a pool house. Plus, an underground passage connects the West Wing to the pool house.

Next: Woodrow Wilson had a flock of these animals — instead of a gardener — maintain the South Lawn.

5. Woodrow Wilson let sheep graze on the South Lawn

Woodrow Wilson grazing sheep
The sheep meant they didn’t need to hire a gardener. | The White House Historical Association

Elle Decor reports that in the spring of 1918 during World War I, Woodrow Wilson let 20 Hampshire sheep take up residence on the White House’s South Lawn. The sheep kept the lawn closely cropped, eliminating the need to pay a gardener to cut the grass. But mowing wasn’t the flock’s only duty at the White House. Wool was in high demand during the war. So the sheep were also shorn, and their wool auctioned off in an event to benefit the American Red Cross.

Next: Rutherford B. Hayes began this tradition in the presidential gardens. 

6. Rutherford B. Hayes established the tradition of planting ‘commemorative’ trees

White House trees
We can thank Hayes for all the trees. | The White House Historical Association

A major influence on the landscape of the White House grounds was landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. The White House Historical Association reports that Downing envisioned creating “a collection of all the trees that will grow in the climate of Washington … to form a public museum of living trees and shrubs.” His untimely death in a steamboat accident stalled the plan. But later, Rutherford B. Hayes established the tradition of planting commemorative trees representing each president and state in the 1870s. More than three dozen special commemorative trees now stand on the grounds surrounding President’s Park.

Next: Abraham Lincoln’s sons kept these destructive pets, likely to the chagrin of White House gardeners.

7. Abraham Lincoln’s sons had goats that ate flowers in the gardens

Abraham Lincoln and his son Thomas
The two goats were known to eat the grounds’ flowers. | Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Elle Decor reports that the White House grounds have served as a playground for the children who have lived at the executive mansion over the years. The two youngest Lincoln boys, Willie and Tad, were the first children who lived in the White House. They owned two pet goats who become notorious for roaming the White House grounds and eating flowers in the presidential gardens.

Next: Lincoln’s wife was in cahoots with the head gardener over this.

8. Mary Todd Lincoln turned to the head gardener to hide her shopping

Mary Tod Lincoln
She was a very fashionable lady. | White House Historical Association

Architectural Digest reports that Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, turned to the head gardener at the Lincoln White House for help hiding her expensive shopping habit. Her purchases for the White House exceeded the $20,000 allocated by Congress, so the gardener padded his bills to help her pay for china, crystal, carpets, wallpaper, and paint. But the Lincoln administration’s staff did plenty of gardening, too, growing tomatoes, eggplants, radishes, cucumbers, York cabbage, cherry peppers, squash, blood turnips, celery, cantaloupes, pumpkins, corn, lima beans, potatoes, rhubarb, early peas, and other plants. And Mary Todd Lincoln took baskets of surplus produce to give to wounded Union soldiers on her near-daily trips to Washington’s military hospitals.

Next: Martin Van Buren attracted criticism for this aspect of his vegetable garden.

9. Martin Van Buren was criticized for his lush vegetable garden

White House Vegetable garden
He was criticized for his garden. | The White House Historical Association

The White House Historical Association reports that the contents of Martin Van Buren’s vegetable garden were detailed in an infamous speech criticizing the president for living lavishly as many Americans struggled to subsist. Congressman Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania spent three days on the House floor complaining about Van Buren’s spending on “gold spoons” and “the Regal Splendor of the President’s Palace.” Ogle also took aim at the presidential gardens, where Van Buren grew strawberries, dewberries, raspberries, Neshanock potatoes, drumhead and early York cabbages, white and red sugar and pickle beets, marrowfat peas, carrots, and parsnips.

Next: The White House grounds were once destroyed by the British.

10. In 1814, the British destroyed the White House, and the White House grounds

White House ruins during the war of 1812
The fire ruined the white house and the grounds. | Library of Congres/Wikimedia Commons

The White House Historical Association reports that when they set fire to the White House in 1814, the British also ruined the White House grounds. As History reports, the event occurred during the War of 1812. British forces had overwhelmed American militiamen in Maryland and marched unopposed into Washington. There, they wanted to take revenge “for the burning of Canadian government buildings by U.S. troops earlier in the war.” To redevelop the grounds and the presidential gardens, James Monroe hired gardener Charles Bizet, who is considered the first White House gardener.

Next: James Madison planted the first documented garden of this type on the White House grounds.

11. James Madison planted the first documented presidential vegetable garden

James Madison portrait
He is credited with the first vegetable garden. | The White House Historical Association

Architectural Digest reports that James Madison planted the first documented vegetable garden on the White House grounds. At the time, presidents paid out of their own pockets to feed their guests. So Madison turned to a White House garden to help out. He planted several varieties of cabbages and radishes, plus carrots, beets, parsnips, and broccoli. In fact, Madison’s Savoy cabbages were grown from seeds provided by the Shaker community near Albany. At the time, Garden Collage notes, Shakers “had already invented the standard paper seed packet that we use today.”

Next: Dolley Madison reportedly haunts this part of the White House grounds.

12. Dolley Madison reportedly haunts the Rose Garden

Dorothy 'Dolley' Madison, the wife of James Madison
Dolley Madison was not a fan of moving the garden apparently. | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

No primer on the White House grounds would be complete without mention of the ghosts who reportedly linger there. The White House Historical Association reports that Dolley Madison apparently protects the Rose Garden. During Woodrow Wilson’s administration, the staff had been asked to move the Rose Garden. ABC notes that Edith Wilson, the wife of Woodrow Wilson, had grown tired of the garden planted on the lawn. But according to the groundskeepers who went to dig up the garden, “out of nowhere the spirit of Dolley Madison swooped out of the sky, chased them away and saved the garden from destruction.” Nonetheless, Architectural Digest reports that Madison herself wasn’t inclined toward gardening, which was mostly regarded as a pastime for men at the time.

Next: Andrew Jackson established this part of the presidential gardens.

13. Andrew Jackson created the White House orangery

White House orangery
The orangery (left) grows fruit and flowers. | The White House Historical Association

The White House Historical Association reports that it was Andrew Jackson who put in place the White House orangery, a kind of greenhouse meant for growing tropical fruit trees and flowers. In 1835, Jackson also added more trees to the White House grounds, including the famous Jackson magnolia. In 1853, during the administration of Franklin Pierce, the orangery was expanded into a full greenhouse. But then in 1857, workers demolished the orangery to make room for a new wing for the Treasury Department. They then constructed a replacement greenhouse on the west side of the White House, adjoining the State Floor.

Next: Thomas Jefferson wanted the presidential gardens small, just like he wanted his government.

14. Thomas Jefferson reduced the size of the presidential gardens

Thomas Jefferson White House garden plan
Jefferson’s White House plan was still used for years as a blueprint. | The White House Historical Association

Though, as Garden Collage reports, Thomas Jefferson has been referred to as “America’s patron saint of gardening,” that honorific seems to refer to his achievements at Monticello, not at the White House grounds. Architectural Digest reports that in spite of his passion for horticulture, Jefferson decided to reduce the size of the presidential gardens. He thought the move would make a point about his ideas on small government. Jefferson cut off more than 70 acres from the presidential gardens and designated them as a public common instead. Yet Jefferson did plant hundreds of trees on the White House grounds and made plans for fences and walls.

Next: George Washington purchased the land for some of the White House grounds from this surprising source.

15. George Washington purchased the land for the South Lawn from a tobacco planter

White House showing the South lawn , Washington DC.
We can thank a tobacco planter for selling much of the land for the South Lawn. | mj0007/iStock/Getty Images

Planning for the White House grounds began with George Washington, who purchased the land for the South Lawn from a tobacco planter. Washington wanted to plant a botanical garden, and Garden Collage reports that Washington was “plant-crazy.” But Washington was the only U.S. president to never live in the White House. And sadly enough, he “died before he could see the results of his classical ideas for the White House garden — ideas that were realized in part by one of his successors, Thomas Jefferson.” John Adams ordered the first presidential gardens to be planted, and then Jefferson then undertook a complete redesign of the White House grounds.

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