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White House Trivia: Who Did What and Where, Outdoors?

We've heard interesting facts and trivia about the presidents, their families, and the White House. But what about the White House grounds, or more specifically, the swimming pools, patios, porches, secret retreats, and other features we may not know about? Not surprisingly, there have been a few memorable incidents and events that have occurred outdoors at the presidential park throughout the years.

Like Yosemite and Yellowstone, the President's Park is one of the United States' National Parks. 
  • The White House and grounds occupy just over 18 acres in Washington DC at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
  • The general design, still used today, was designed in 1935 by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. of the Olmsted Brothers firm, under commission from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  • While John F. Kennedy was president, he commissioned Rachel Lambert Mellon to redesign the White House Rose Garden.
  • The grounds and garden crew consists of 13 regular staff. The chief horticulturalist is on the executive residence staff. The other 12 are National Park Service staff – 3 forepersons, 8 gardeners, and 1 maintenance operator. Additional Park Service personnel can be called in for more infrequent work on trees, roads and trails, maintenance, and outdoor plumbing and electrical service.

Enjoy these 20 bits of information about the White House landscape, past and present. Facts are presented in random order.

Who Had the Outdoor Swimming Pool Built?

President Gerald Ford was quite athletic and an avid swimmer. In 1975 an in-ground outdoor swimming pool was built on the White House grounds, near the tennis courts. President Ford tried to make swimming a daily habit, and even conducted press conferences while swimming laps in the pool. Ford's son Jack took scuba diving lessons in the pool; while later, young Amy Carter perfected her diving technique when her father, Jimmy Carter, was in office.

The pool is located behind the West Wing, with a privacy screen of trees and the convenience of a poolhouse (cabana). It also has a hot tub/spa, although we're not sure if it's still the Grandee installed during the Clinton administration.

The Mystery of the Swimming Pool Beneath the Press Room

In 1933,  President Franklin D. Roosevelt had an indoor swimming pool built at the White House as therapy for his polio. funded partially from a campaign started by the New York Daily News.

Located in the gallery between the White House and the West Wing offices in a former laundry area, the pool measured 50 feet by 15 feet and was 8 feet deep. Also enjoyed by other administrations. President Harry Truman often took mid-afternoon laps in the White House swimming pool while wearing in glasses.

President John F. Kennedy enjoyed after-lunch and evening swims, reportedly inviting staff or White House guests to join him. His father, Joseph Kennedy, commissioned a muralist to paint Caribbean sailboat scenes on three of the indoor pool walls.

President Nixon had the pool covered over to turn it into a press room. In July 2007, the basement that still has the intact pool walls was redesigned, along with the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room above it to accommodate all the miles of wires and cables for the electronic press. A trap door was replaced with a staircase that leads down to the basement.

The tile sides of the FDR pool remain as part of the walls of the basement and have been signed by the press, celebrities, dignitaries and of course, members of the administration. Famous signatures include BonoSugar Ray Leonard, Ben Stiller, Matthew Broderick, members of the band Styx,  the Jonas Brothers, CNN's Anderson Cooper, Bill O'Reilly, Steelers' player Troy Polamalu, and former First Lady Laura Bush.

Michelle Obama's White House Garden

Eleanor Roosevelt was the last one to plant a vegetable garden at the White House; hers was a small victory garden that was only a bedroom-sized plot on the lawn planted to hopefully inspire the nation to follow suit.

Memo to the New President: Lose the Lawn

Even before Barack Obama was elected as the 44th President of the United States, a movement was underway for the new administration to dig up the lawn and plant another vegetable garden.

By doing so, the new president would leading by example, with others across the country - and world - hopefully planting their own home gardens.

When the Obamas moved into the White House in January 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama worked with White House Chef Sam Kass and Horticulturist Dale Haney to get schoolchildren from throughout the U.S. involved in planting and harvesting the garden, along with cooking. This tied in with one of Mrs. Obama's chief causes: fitness and childhood obesity, which became the Let's Move campaign.

Seeds From Monticello

The White House garden kicked off with its first planting in March of 2009. Michelle Obama and Sam Kass worked with local school children to plant the first seeds, many of which were from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

Jefferson was an avid gardener and architect, and when he retired to his neoclassical mansion at Monticello, he took up farming as one of his many pursuits. Many of the heirloom seeds are still available and some were used for the new White House garden.

 

"Thomas Jefferson, more than any one man, changed the way we eat in this country, and the way we grow food," says chef Sam Kass. He continues: "When his ambassadors would travel the world, he would request they bring back seeds. He was the first person to start seasonal growing, and that is something people are sort of coming back to now. People are thinking about using a diversity of crops and growing throughout the year."

The Farm to Table Movement

Tying in the garden with cooking and learning to eat healthy was a natural. "We wanted to encourage people to do more family meals," says Michelle Obama. "We found that we've been able to do that, and the message is that if the president of the United States can sit down with his family and have dinner, hopefully more families can find time to do the same.

"The garden is really an important introduction to what i hope will be a new way that our  country thinks about food," Obama explains, adding, "That's the story of the garden. And it's been quite an amazing success, if I do say so myself."

Which President Swam Naked?

Andrew Jackson - the president who had the Orangery built and whose inaugural reception became a bacchanal on the lawn - apparently enjoyed early-morning swims au natural in the nearby Potomac River, followed by some weeding and digging around in the White House gardens.

If he'd had an in- ground swimming pool built on the White House grounds, it would have saved him the jaunt down to the chilly waters of the Potomac.

On the other hand, skinny-dipping may have been just what he needed to kick-off his day. Do you suppose he ever gathered a crowd during those early-morning dips?

Hot Tubbing at the White House

In 1997, during the Clinton administration, an outdoor spa was installed next to the inground swimming pool. As reported in The New York Times, the above-ground tub, the "Grandee" model by the Watkins Manufacturing Corporation, had seven seats, held 500 gallons of water and had 25 adjustable jets. The hot tub was donated by Watkins as a gift and, as is routine, was processed through the National Park Service.

"Every once in a while, there may be a photo taken in that product, and it may be a good thing for our business," Watkins president Steve Hammock told The Times. Hammock was pleased that the White House would use the tub, because Watkins had donated a hot tub during the Reagan years. "I don't know where that one ended up," he said.

Play Time at the White House

The lawns of the White House may be bigger and grander than most residences, but that doesn't mean they haven't seen their share of good, old-fashioned fun. Children like to play on swings and slides, and a few have graced the White House grounds.
  • With frequent visits from their 13 grandchildren, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had swings, sandboxes and slides built on the South Lawn.
  • In 1961, a swing set/jungle gym was installed on the west side of the South Lawn for Caroline and John F. Kennedy, Jr.


  • When the Obamas moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2009, First Daughters Malia and Sasha were thrilled to receive their first-ever swing set, situated on the lawn at the edge of the Rose Garden, within view of the Oval Office.


Wait - Another President Swam in the Raw?

In presidential lore, it's often mentioned that John Quincy Adams - not Andrew Jackson - swam in the nude. Well, Adams did too, but not intentionally.

According to a passage in Adams' diary, on June 18, 1825, he and an aide went for a canoe ride in nearby Tiber Creek, near the Potomac. The canoe became waterlogged, and the two bailed and swam for shore. Their clothing was weighed down by the unexpected soak, so Adams stripped off his duds and gave them to his aide, who then went to get help.

In the meantime, Adams' son went swimming in the Tiber in search of his dad. When they met up, both went swimming and sat "...naked basking on the bank" until the aide returned with a carriage. Adams was simply thankful that "no injury befell our persons."

Important Dates in the History of the White House Grounds

  • 1824: South Portico is completed
  • 1829: North Portico is completed
  • 1833: Running water is installed
  • 1848: Natural gas lighting installed
  • 1891: Electric lighting installed
  • 1902: West Wing constructed
  • 1909: Oval Office (off the West Wing) built
  • 1913Rose garden created
  • 1933: Indoor swimming pool built
  • 1975: Outdoor in-ground swimming pool built
  • 1989: A horseshoe pitch is created beside the outdoor swimming pool. It's removed in 1993, then rebuilt in 2001.


  • 1991: A basketball half-court is built on the South Grounds
  • 1993: A jogging track is installed
  • 2009: The White House Kitchen Garden is created
  • 2009: President Obama has the White House tennis court adapted so it can be used for both tennis and basketball. Although there was the smaller half-court built in 1991, the adapted tennis court allows enough room for a full court game of basketball. 


The Jonas Brothers Did What on the Pool Wall?

The year 2014 saw a record number of intruders jumping the White House fence in modern history.

While not exactly "fun" facts, these incidents are newsworthy and significant in they reflected a possible failure of multiple layers of security at the White House compound and led to an investigation into and heightened security throughout the presidential park. Both of these incidents occurred within one month in the fall of 2014.

These were the sixth and seventh White House fence-jumping incidents that year, for a total of 16 in the five-year period of 2009-2014.

Here's what happened: On September 19, 2014, a knife-wielding man, Omar Gonzalez, jumped the White House fence and ran across the North Lawn, bypassing a plainclothes surveillance team on duty outside the fence. An officer in a guard booth couldn't reach Gonzalez as he sprinted past, and the attack dog was not released, possibly because the handler felt by then there were too many officers pursuing Gonzalez and the dog could have attacked them, according to The Washington Post. Gonzalez entered the front door of the White House, and made it to the East Room before being tackled and apprehended by a counterassault agent. 

The security breech led to scrutiny into Secret Service protocol at the White House. Secret Service Director Julia Pierson received much of the criticism and resigned in early October of 2014.

The second incident occurred October 22, 2014, when Dominic Adesanya, 23, scaled the double-layer of North Lawn security fences (a temporary extra fence was installed after the September 19th incident) and attempted to run across the lawn before quickly being attacked by security dogs.

Video footage shows what appears to be the suspect kicking and punching two Secret Service dogs that were released on him. Adesanya, who was unarmed, was apprehended by agents and charged with several counts.

In recent history, it has been a common occurrence for intruders to scale the fence around the White House Complex and enter the grounds. According to a White House security report, most of these "fence jumpers" have been pranksters; peaceful protesters; and harmless, mentally ill individuals.

Secret Passage to the Pool: No More Peeking From the West Wing

In August 2008, the then-wildly popular boy band the Jonas Brothers showed up at the White House to attend a press conference about diabetes and record a public service announcement about National Parks. The teen idols, Nick (a diabetes patient), Joe and Kevin Jonas, left a permanent memento at the White House by autographing the abovementioned wall of the swimming pool that's below the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.

"There's other names up there that are just astounding, some of our favorite artists and politicians," Joe Jonas told CNN. "But it's going to be really cool to see that in 10 years, 20 years from now."

Wonder if Joe Jonas checked out his signature when he and his brothers stopped by the White House on Inauguration Night in January of 2009? To refresh your memory, the Jonases performed a few of their hit songs at a welcome-to-the-White House slumber party for Sasha and Malia Obama and friends.

It's Solar, Baby

After the outdoor swimming pool was built in 1976, a pool cabana was added to provide swimmers with a place to shower and change their clothes. The cabana also serves double duty as a privacy screen for the pool, which could otherwise be seen from those inside the West Wing. It gets even better: an underground passage was created to allow the first family and guests to reach the cabana from the ground floor of the West Wing without going outside.

Party Like It's 1829

To make the White House more efficient, in 2002, the outdoor swimming pool cabana was renovated - more windows were added, the roof was raised, and a solar array was installed on the roof. The solar thermal array uses water heated in pipes by the sun and provides hot water to the cabana. Two of the systems deliver thermal energy for hot water and pool and hot tub heating and one produces electricity directly from the sun with photovoltaics.

The Orangery and Greenhouses

In simpler times, presidents would often open up the White House for public tours and receptions, where they would personally greet well-wishers on occasions like New Year's Day, the Fourth of July and the Inaugural.

When a crowd of "callers" on President Andrew Jackson's Inauguration Day in 1829 swelled to 20,000, the leader had to make a quick exit to a local hotel. To appease the throngs, White House staff reportedly lured them out to the lawn by filling washtubs with oranges (perhaps from the Orangery?

See No. 14) and whiskey. While the revelers celebrated with their makeshift cocktails on the lawn, staff closed the doors and cleaned up the muddy floors of the White House.

Outdoor Weddings at the White House

In 1835, President Andrew Jackson - the one who enjoyed those crack-of-dawn swims in the Potomac and early-morning gardening - created the White House orangery, a type of greenhouse in which tropical fruit trees and flowers can be grown. Some 18 years later, during President Franklin Pierce's administration, Jackson's orangery was expanded into a greenhouse.

In 1857, the orangery was torn down to accommodate a new wing for the Treasury Department.

Another greenhouse, or conservatory (pictured),  was built on the west side of the White House, next to the State Floor.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the conservatory was expanded into a rambling iron-glass structure off the West Wing to provide an enclosed spring garden for White House residents to enjoy throughout the year.

Jimmy Carter's Treehouse

On June 12, 1971, Tricia Nixon was the first and only president's daughter to be married in the Rose Garden, which was designed as an outdoor extension of the West Wing during Kennedy's presidency. She wed Edward Finch Cox.

The only other outdoor White House wedding took place during the Clinton administration. On May 28, 1994, then-First Lady (and former Secretary of State) Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother, Anthony Rodham, married Nicole Boxer, daughter of Senator Barbara Boxer.

First Lady Barbara Bush's Afternoon Swims

The very versatile and handy President Jimmy Carter designed and built a treehouse on the grounds of the White House for his tween daughter, Amy. Not surprisingly, when Amy and her friends had sleepovers in the treehouse, Secret Service agents monitored the festivities from the ground.

Grant's Pools

 First Lady Barbara Bush (that would be H.W.'s spouse) used to swim in the outdoor heated pool even on cold winter days, and would sometimes come back to the White House with icicles in her hair. She also reportedly once discovered an uninvited guest in the White House pool - a rat (not sure if it was dead or alive). 

Walls of Stone

In the 1870s, President Ulysses S. Grant oversaw the expansion of the south grounds and had round reflection pools built on the North and South lawns. These pools and fountains are frequently photographed.

The Annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House Lawn

While there have been many changes throughout the years, the exterior stone walls are the same ones that were built under the leadership of President Thomas Jefferson, who was involved in the design and planning of many improvements to the White House exterior and grounds starting in 1801. Whatever the "recipe" was for stone and mortar is obviously a resilient one - maybe something that could be shared with stone masons or serious do-it-yourselfers today.

 

On Easter Monday - the day after Easter Sunday - thousands of Washingtonians gather on the South Lawn of the White House to enjoy the spring weather and a celebration with the first family. Festivities have changed throughout the years, but the idea remains the same: it's a free event and an opportunity to party, presidential style. 

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