The past three or so weeks have seen more than 17,000 Americans die of the coronavirus. They’ve also seen Melania Trump complete her renovation of the White House’s storied Rose Garden—a space that most Americans will never access, and that really was doing just fine as it was. (Much better, anyway, than the millions of Americans sickened with COVID-19, the swaths of California engulfed in historic fires, and the overall economy.)
But it’s not just the timing of Trump’s horticultural moves, which conveniently completed right in time for her speech for the Republican National Convention. For starters, it’s the latest in a string of her interior design moves that have baffled or bemused the public since decorating the White House became her charge. Her Christmas decorations, for example, have infused the property not with cheer, but with blood red and ice cold existential dread. The new Rose Garden is similarly austere: Its key feature is plain old grass.
Ostensibly, the new Rose Garden aims to restore Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s vision for the grounds, which she and the horticulturist Bunny Mellon overhauled in 1962. Nowhere is that apparent in the photos taken at this weekend’s official reopening, where it transpired that Trump had not only rid of Kennedy’s colorful foliage, but even uprooted the 10 crabapple trees that were key to Onassis and Mellon’s design. (White House officials have since confirmed that they will be replanted elsewhere on the grounds.) Gone are the boldly hued roses, and gone are the tulips. A closer look proves there are still some hints of pink and purple in the mix, but for the most part, there are simply scatterings of white flowers like roses, with a new limestone path to match.
So, why did Trump add the renovation to her plate, especially when it was already brimming with plans for upgrading the White House’s bowling alley and installing new tennis courts? One reason is simple: The Rose Garden is already compliant with ADA levels of accessibility. Trump didn't even have to get her stilettos dirty to do so, and reportedly found private donors to foot the bill.
The garden is also apparently more suited to media appearances, with new (unspecified) audio and visual features, more space for TV cameras, and better lighting. All that’s no doubt of utmost importance to the president, who’s “said to like presenting himself in the Rose Garden, not just for its historic associations but because the natural light is flattering to his complexion,” according to the Washington Post.
Ultimately, though, the renovation seems most beneficial to Donald and Melania themselves. “Gardens are symbols of growth and hope,” the latter said at the garden’s official reopening over the weekend—two things they desperately need right now, with the election just 71 days away. If they are to leave the Oval Office, at least they’ll have left their mark—and added at least a hint of credibility to Donald’s claim that the legacy of “Melania T” rivals that of Jackie O.
Correction, August 31: A previous version of this article misstated that the Rose Garden renovation cost $60 million. White House officials have so far declined to share the cost.