Michelle Obama’s White House kitchen garden gets UVA-led facelift
With her husband’s term drawing to a close, Michelle Obama has been building the legacy of her “Let’s Move!” initiative fighting childhood obesity and promoting healthier lifestyles. Through a collaborative agreement with UVA and the National Park Service, the first lady commissioned UVA landscape architecture professor Elizabeth K. Meyer to lead a team of faculty members and students in designing a communal table and gathering space for the White House Kitchen Garden, which the first lady created in 2009 to encourage national conversations around health and wellness.
The team traveled to the White House on Wednesday for a ceremony unveiling its additions, including an arbor marking a new threshold from the South Lawn and a path to a bluestone terrace where gardeners and guests can gather around the new tables and benches the team designed.
“I want to thank all of the students and faculty at the University of Virginia School of Architecture who did such an incredible job designing the new arbor as well as the gathering area,” Michelle Obama told the assembled crowd on Wednesday. “It really is incredible and you should be very proud of the work that you have done.”
During the Obamas’ time in the White House, the kitchen garden has become a focal point for the first lady’s efforts promoting wellness and nutrition and has welcomed numerous guests, ranging from elementary school groups to visiting dignitaries. Meyer and her team were tasked with providing garden spaces and structures, including a communal table, to support the garden’s mission of cultivating community as well as plants.
“The first lady was interested in the garden not just as a place to produce food, but as a social space where children and adults can gather to learn something about the relationships between gardening, food and their own health and well-being,” Meyer said.
Meyer, director of UVA’s new Center for Cultural Landscapes, has years of experience studying and working on some of Washington’s most prominent landmarks. She is one of seven presidential appointees to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, an independent federal agency advising the government on the design of landmarks, memorials, new or renovated public buildings and landscapes concerning federal interests in Washington. Previously, Meyer has also served as an adviser for design competitions held by The Trust for the National Mall, written about memorials within D.C.’s monumental core and taught two design studios focused on the socio-ecological reinvigoration of the Mall’s cultural landscape.
After receiving the call from the National Park Service on behalf of the first lady’s office, Meyer pulled together a team including landscape architecture department chair Julie Bargmann; landscape architecture program director Nancy Takahashi; urban and environmental planning lecturer Tanya Denckla Cobb, a national expert on local food systems; and fabrication facilities manager Melissa Goldman. The team also included six undergraduate and graduate students: architecture students Joshua Aronson, Owen Weinstein and Stephen Grotz and landscape architecture students Anna Cai, Scott Shinton and Mary McCall.
“To have our students working on a project of this stature was really momentous,” Bargmann said. “It was a rare opportunity for them, and they really stepped up.”
Over the summer, the team logged hundreds of hours designing improvements for the garden, speaking weekly with the first lady’s “Let’s Move!” staff and the National Park Service liaisons to the White House, building prototypes and conducting two site visits at the White House to test their designs. Students worked collaboratively sharing their design thinking expertise in site planning, landscape design, design detailing and fabrication.
“We started with what was already a very successfully established garden, and our goal was to give it a sense of place and permanence,” Takahashi said.
The team presented three design concepts to the client in June. The final design emerged from architecture graduate student Owen Weinstein’s concept, which proposed that every element of their design reflect the ideal of “e pluribus unum” – out of many, one.
“We used many different woods and different structural systems, including structures that combine steel and wood, which have different structural properties but come together to create something much stronger,” Meyer said. “We sensed that the first lady’s staff really liked the idea, both for its aesthetic as well as its political and social associations.”
The team created a new garden threshold and gathering space with custom-designed tables, benches and arbors. Continuing the “e pluribus unum” theme, the laminated wood structures – made with a combination of steel and wood – used a wide variety of American wood.
“The different materials come together and become stronger and more beautiful in the process, which seemed to us quite a nice metaphor,” Weinstein said. “We used wood from throughout the United States, so that you have a sampling of American woods with really tremendous variety in grain, tone and texture, all lined up next to each other to become this beautiful assembly.”
The garden now includes wood from sites like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Madison’s Montpelier, James Monroe’s home at Ash Lawn-Highland, and Martin Luther King’s birthplace in Atlanta. Other wood came from a heritage Osage orange tree on an Albemarle County farm that dates to the time when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark gave Jefferson seeds and seedlings collected during their cross-country expedition. The Osage orange tree, native to Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, was frequently used to create agricultural hedgerows across the Midwest.
“Each piece has so many really interesting historical and geographical stories attached to it,” Meyer said.
The new furniture was custom-built by Roger Sherry, a 1998 School of Architecture graduate who now works as a landscape architect and master builder in Albemarle County. After graduate school, Sherry worked on a cultural landscape report for the Petersburg National Battlefield, a cooperative project between the National Park Service and UVA. Sherry’s firm, Plank Road Studios, has designed and built numerous projects for significant historical properties along the East Coast. The UVA students provided Sherry with full-scale prototypes of their designs, which he used to refine and build the benches, tables and arbor unveiled Wednesday.
Aronson, McCall and Weinstein, as well as Goldman and Takahashi, assisted Sherry in the fabrication process. In addition, Goldman used the School of Architecture’s 3-D laser printers to etch the botanical and common names of the legacy woods into one of the benches, offering garden visitors a prompt to ask questions about the broad geographic and cultural origins of the woods.
“I think that what the students came up with, and what Roger put together, is just genius,” Bargmann said. “We wanted to reframe this garden as part of the first lady’s legacy to the White House, and to do so in a simple, understated way that was respectful of the site and recognized its status as an important symbol for our country.”
The team also prepared a short report with illustrated diagrams documenting the history of food cultivation and kitchen gardens at the White House and the evolution of White House gardening through various administrations. Anna Cai, a 2016 graduate of the landscape architecture program, researched and wrote the report, advised by Denckla Cobb and Meyer.
“From a pedagogical point of view, this was an incredible opportunity for our students to understand the cultural and social connotations of what they design and build,” Meyer said. “It was a very good lesson in appreciating the power of ideas behind design projects.”
Presenting their designs to the first lady’s staff each week gave students valuable experience in working with clients and addressing all of the details that must be taken care of during the design process.
“We went through several iterations developing the concept, the details and the details within the details,” Meyer said. “That is what the design process is all about, and I think it was so helpful for our students.”
For the students and faculty, the project was also an opportunity to contribute to the design of one of the country’s most famed and enduring landscapes, the White House Grounds with the President’s Park. It was, as Michelle Obama put it on Wednesday, “a labor of absolute love.”
“I take great pride in knowing that this little garden will live on as a symbol of the hopes that we all hold of growing a healthier nation for our children,” Obama said on Wednesday. “I am hopeful that future first families will cherish this garden like we have.”