While a girl attending Miss Fine’s School in Princeton, N.J., Rachel “Bunny” Mellon built wee gardens in wooden boxes complete with stone steps and faux topiary. She read exhaustively on the topic of horticulture and visited gardens in America, England, France and Italy. At the age of 23, she designed her first garden for hire; the grounds of designer Hattie Carnegie, who paid the tab with a coat and dress.
During her long life, Mellon, an heiress and art patron who died on March 17 at the age of 103, left her green-thumb fingerprint on some of the most renowned gardens in the world. She designed the gardens of Jacqueline Kennedy’s summer home on Martha’s Vineyard, Hubert de Givenchy’s Manoir du Jonchet in France, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston – not to mention the private gardens at Oak Spring Farms, her 4,000-acre estate, in Upperville, Va.
But Mellon’s best-known design is the White House Rose Garden.
In 1961, after Mrs. Kennedy visited Oak Spring Farm, she asked Mellon to redesign the White House Rose Garden. The famed green space that plays home to presidential ceremonies and celebrations was created in 1913 by first lady Ellen Wilson, replacing a colonial garden planted in 1902 by another first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.
Mellon approached the design with her classic but creative style — proper, but with panache. She laid out a central lawn bordered by flower beds in a classic French style, but included American plantings like Catherine crab apples (seen in the picture below), little leaf lindens, thyme hedges, and on the corners, Magnolia soulangeana specimens she found floating in the Tidal Basin of Washington, according to The New York Times. While roses were the main blooming plant, other flowers were included to ensure color throughout the seasons.
Photo: The White House/flickr
She moved on to design the White House East Garden, the creation of which was stalled by the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. Upon the request of first lady Lady Bird Johnson, she completed the work, and in 1965 it was dedicated as the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.
In 1966, Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall presented Mellon with the Conservation Service Award. “The nation will be ever indebted to you for your gift of talent to the design and development of the Rose Garden and the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden at the White House,” he said. Her other honors include the Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the Royal Horticultural Society's Veitch Gold Medal, the Henry Shaw Award, and the American Horticultural Society Landscape Design Award, and she has been recognized for her assistance during the restoration of the Potager du Roi at Versailles.
Along with her deep passion for horticulture, Mellon played steward to a tremendous art collection, including Mark Rothko’s "Yellow Expanse," considered to be one of the most important privately owned pictures (and estimated to be worth some $125 million).
Yet perhaps even more significant than the art and gardens is her collection of rare horticulture books and prints that she acquired for her Oak Spring Garden Library.
As the eldest child of Gerard Barnes Lambert, president of the Gillette Safety Razor Company (his father invented Listerine) and wife of Paul Mellon, son of one of the world’s richest financiers, her extraordinary wealth allowed for prodigious collecting. Within the sprawling library at her estate, as described in Vanity Fair, reside 3,500 rare historical manuscripts and books, some dating from the 15th century, and 10,000 modern reference works. She had been curating the library for decades; few other specialized libraries can boast such an extraordinary collection of rare books, manuscripts, works of art and artifacts relating to gardening, landscape design, horticulture, botany, natural history and travels.
"This collection of books and drawings grew as a way of life, not just a gathering of rare and interesting books bought at the enticement of an enthusiastic bookseller, but chosen one by one for their special and unusual contents and design, as well as their relationship to books already part of the collection,” Mellon wrote in the Oak Spring Garland.
“It is a working library where mystery, fascination, and romance contribute to centuries of the art of gardening as a source of discovery" she added. And with the library as a legacy that will outlive a succession of future first ladies at the White House, it will foreseeably remain a source of discovery for generations to come.
Parts of the collection have been digitized, which you can find at the Oak Spring site. You can also see some of Mellon’s work in the historical tour of the White House gardens below:
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