The theft of a historic site for free expression casts light on the value of public space in a democratic society.
Text by Thaïsa Way, FASLA
Photography by Sahar Coston-Hardy, Affiliate ASLA
When we published “All Ours” in July 2020—the commanding essay by Thaïsa Way, FASLA, with photography by Sahar Coston-Hardy, Affiliate ASLA, on the shocking theft of public space at Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., that summer—we did not imagine that we would see a day more shameful than the one called out in those pages. That day is here. I returned to the images and words this week, and was unsettled by how prescient they were, and, in many ways, how measured they sound, read today in the context of the attack on the United States Congress. We are republishing “All Ours” to reaffirm that the repugnant entanglement of racism and antidemocratic violence that we witnessed in June 2020 and on January 6 is intolerable.
—Jennifer Reut, Acting Editor
On June 1, 2020, in a cowardly response by the president to the protests against racially grounded police violence, Lafayette Park and the Ellipse were fenced off around the White House. These two parks, to the north and south of the White House, respectively, form President’s Park and are under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service (NPS). They belong to the public, to us.
Areas of the park have been closed before (and often temporarily for arriving heads of state), but the fences that went up as May became June posed serious incursions into the democratically sacrosanct public realm. The barriers began as low temporary railings over the weekend of May 30 in a frightened reaction to large protests against the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on May 25 and the killings of so many other black people before him across the nation. As demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter grew in downtown Washington, the buffer around the White House expanded until it had pushed the nearest protests into H Street NW, a two-block remove. Late in the afternoon of June 1, hundreds of peaceful protestors were violently struck with tear gas and sting grenades fired by police to cut a large path for the president’s now infamous walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church to pose for photographs. By Thursday, June 4, as more military vehicles poured into Washington, the fences had been hardened into cage-like walls more than eight feet high around the 82-acre whole of President’s Park. It was a reprehensible seizure of First Amendment space.
President’s Park has a long history as a place of public gathering, ceremony, and free expression. It was included in Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 concept for the new Federal City, placed on more than 80 acres. The first time the grounds were enclosed was under President Thomas Jefferson, who had a 12-foot-high stone wall built just south of the White House, likely to keep away grazing animals, and erected rail fencing on three sides to mark a five-acre core. However, neither the wall nor the fence kept people out, as was noted by each of the early presidents who daily greeted visitors allowed to stroll the grounds at leisure. During the War of 1812, the White House was burned, and in its rebuilding, the park to the north was cleared and planted with elms and eastern red cedar trees as a public park designed by the architect Charles Bulfinch. In 1825, in honor of a visit by the Marquis de Lafayette, the seven-acre park was formally named Lafayette Park, separated from the White House by Pennsylvania Avenue. Today Lafayette Square includes the historic buildings surrounding the park.
Andrew Jackson Downing was commissioned in 1851 to develop a design for President’s Park, much of which was completed only decades later. After the Civil War, President Grant appointed General Orville Babcock as the superintendent of public buildings and grounds for Washington, D.C., in charge of President’s Park, and the Army Corps of Engineers was made responsible for maintenance. Babcock removed Jefferson’s wall to reclaim the grounds to the south of the White House. Pathways were built in the park and trees were planted, including American elms along the southern edge. The Army Corps of Engineers’s stewardship of the park ended in 1933 when its oversight was transferred to the NPS. The Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm provided a design management plan in 1935.
Like Lafayette Square, the Ellipse is a part of the 1791 plan by L’Enfant, though it is far larger, at 52 acres, and has served as the location for many annual celebrations as well as recreational uses. The site was initially used for pasturing horses, mules, and cattle, and as a campsite for Union troops, and in the 1860s, it was the playing field for the D.C. baseball team the Washington Senators. Black baseball teams such as the Washington Mutuals and the Washington Alerts played there until black people were banned from access in 1874. By 1880, Downing’s 1851 design for the Ellipse was realized after the final filling of the swampy land to create the flat field we know today. When President’s Park came under the jurisdiction of the NPS in 1933, it was not a simple transfer of duties but a commitment to the public purpose of the landscape.
The two parks, Lafayette Park and the Ellipse, are not inconsequential landscapes. Lafayette Park, with its layered history, sits directly in front of the primary public entrance to the White House, the seat of the executive branch of the United States government. The park has held a racetrack, a graveyard, a zoo, and an encampment for soldiers during the War of 1812. According to the White House Historical Association, “In 1810 an enslaved woman named Alethia Browning Tanner purchased her freedom with $1,400 she had earned selling vegetables in the area that we know today as Lafayette Square.” Important institutions emerged along the park’s edges including the Freedman’s Savings Bank and the Belasco Theater, “where black entertainers were allowed to perform before desegregated audiences.” It would soon become a site for protests given its proximity to the White House. As noted in the NPS’s Teaching with Historic Places web page, Lafayette Park: First Amendment Rights on the President’s Doorstep, in early 1917, “Every day the women with their banners marched across the park to take up positions in front of the White House.… Their banners demanded that President Woodrow Wilson help them in their campaign to get all American women the same right to vote that American men already had. They maintained their vigil every day for two months, through the rain and snow of January and February 1917.” The park has been the site of myriad formal and informal protests. It was where participants gathered in 1963 as they prepared for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Starting in 1981, William Thomas began the White House Peace Vigil, and an anti-nuclear protestor, Concepción Picciotto, began her occupation of a center spot of the square’s southern edge that she maintained until her death in 2016. The park has long been, as noted by the NPS, a place where Americans have been able “to exercise their right as citizens—their right to be heard.”
President’s Park, according to the NPS itself, is not merely “the setting for the White House but also functions as an important public space within Washington, D.C.” Among its long-honored purposes is to “interpret the history and significance of the presidency, the White House, and President’s Park, including their relationship to the American public, our republican form of government, and the growth of Washington, D.C.” It is meant to “provide a large open area associated with the White House for freedom of public expression and assembly activities, as well as for public use and enjoyment.” Although officials claimed that the area would reopen on June 10, just before midnight on June 9 it was announced that it was not clear when the parks would open.
The message is not lost when President’s Park, perhaps the country’s most potent space for dissent and free speech, is taken away. In contrast, the city’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, on June 5 underscored the essential nature of this landscape as a purely public realm when she ordered BLACK LIVES MATTER to be painted in transportation-department yellow on 16th Street NW, directly pointing to the White House. The public realm is a fundamental platform of our political process, and it is essential that we not let it be stolen, incrementally or impulsively, from the public, from us. It matters where we can demand that Black Lives Matter.
Sahar Coston-Hardy, Affiliate ASLA, is a fine art and landscape architecture photographer focused on the social structure of race and cultural identity. The above photos were taken on June 8, 2020.
Thaïsa Way, FASLA, is the director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Harvard University.