Fixing America’s Front Yard

My tours of D.C. usually begin at the place that all visitors, both international and domestic, have ultimately come to Washington to see – the White House.

But when we arrive, many of my groups actually don’t recognize one of the most famous buildings in the world. They’re surprised and a little disappointed when I point out the President’s house.

White House - North Side
The White House’s north side, seen from Lafayette Park

“It doesn’t look the way I remember it,” or “It looks smaller than it does on TV,” are the two most common responses I hear.

That’s because I take my groups through Lafayette Park to the north side of the White House. This is technically the front entrance. With its portico and circular driveway, the north side faces the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and 16th Street, giving the residence its famous address.

It’s the back, or south side, that most people recognize from movies and postcards. It has the curved façade and Truman balcony, and opens onto the President’s back yard.

This is where the Rose Garden and fountain are located, where the traditional Easter Egg Roll takes place, and where the presidential helicopter – Marine One – lands and takes off.

The grounds sit upon a bluff that used to command an unobstructed view of the Potomac River, and sloped down to the old Tiber Creek (which was later filled in to become the City Canal, which was also eventually filled in to become Constitution Avenue).

So why don’t I take my groups to the south side for that iconic view of the White House?

Because it’s a royal pain.

For me, the north side is more accessible and more pleasant. You can get so much closer to the actual building, and the security measures that have been put in place since the 1990s are actually more inviting than off-putting for pedestrians.

It’s a different story with the south side, which requires a lot of walking, but a lot of unsightly barriers and obstructions for pedestrians.

White House - South Side
The White House from the south side, seen from E Street

Like Pennsylvania Ave to the north, the section of E Street running south of the White House has been closed to traffic for security. Unfortunately, this street hasn’t really become an open space designed for pedestrians. Depending on the day or the time, you run the risk of getting yelled at by police for crossing it.

To get the best view of the White House, tourists have to crowd along a narrow sidewalk north of E Street, right up against the gate.

Fortunately, that’s all about to change – more on that below.

To the south of E Street is the Ellipse, the famous circular pathway designed in 1851 by Andrew Jackson Downing, one of

The Ellipse
The Ellipse to the south of the White House

the country’s first professional landscape architects. He was hired to redesign the gardens for the President’s Park, and to transform the formal layout of the National Mall into smaller, more inviting spaces (ultimately, only his plans for gardens around the newly built Smithsonian Castle were implemented).

For the President’s Park, Downing envisioned a curving promenade with a canopy of American Elms, and smaller pathways cutting through a series of separate, lush garden spaces.

He died an untimely death just a year later in 1852, but his plan for the Ellipse was added in the 1870s. The original design has been modified over the years, and has suffered greatly since security measures were put in place after 9/11.

Andrew Jackson Downing Urn
Commemorative urn for Andrew Jackson Downing in front of the Smithsonian

Today, the Ellipse is mostly a barren and unforgiving landscape, particularly under the harsh sun of Washington summers. For me, it’s always been either a dusty or a muddy place to cross on the way to somewhere else – never really a destination unto itself.

It’s too bad, because this is one of the most significant public spaces in all of Washington. The District’s French designer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, designated this entire area as Reservation No. 1, an important public space intended both for the President’s Grounds and a park.

Over the years, there have been a number of significant civic sites built around the Ellipse – including the National Christmas Tree, Washington’s Zero Milestone, memorials to the Army’s First and Second divisions, and the Boy Scouts memorial, to name a few.

Now here’s the good news: To make this space once again more accessible to the public, the National Capital Planning Commission has created a competition to redesign President’s Park South. The goal is to restore the balance between security and beauty, and safety and openness. The Commission invited five firms to submit their plans, and invited the public to submit their own feedback on the designs.

Some of the suggested improvements include creating low and inviting walls, both as a security barrier and a place for people to congregate and sit – described in one of the plans as a national “front porch.” The designs also strive to create a national “front yard,” to coincide with what is often called America’s back yard – the National Mall.

There are plans for a terrace or viewing plaza to create a space for visitors to mingle and see the White House, Ellipse, and other monuments – and to make E Street more friendly for pedestrians and cyclists. The various designs also call for shoring up the canopy of Elms and adding more diverse plantings, as well as the smaller, shaded groves and gardens that Downing preferred. There are also plans for ecological and hydrology improvements.

On Tuesday, there was a public forum where the five firms presented their designs, which you can watch online.  The Commission will announce the winner of the President’s Park South Design Competition next Thursday, July 7.

In the meantime, you can look at the five different plans online, or see them at the White House Visitor Center through

President's Park South Design Competition

July 8 (excepting July 2- 4).

You can also share your feedback. I have to say, I’m still undecided. As a guide and a Washingtonian, I’m trying to reconcile what’s best for tourists and locals alike.

I’ll make my choice next Tuesday, and let you know which design I like best on Historic District’s new Facebook page (HistoricDC) and Twitter page (@HistoricDC).

And I’ll update you here on the blog about which design wins the official competitions next Thursday.

Whichever plan ultimately wins, I’m excited to say that I might be changing my tour route sometime in the near future.

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