PlacePromo logo

    Home     Preservation Daily     Projects     Blog     Connect

Friday, July 19, 2013

NHPAat50: A White House Diary and the preservation ethic of Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson portrait on White House grounds
LBJ Library photo by Robert Knudsen
Having looked at the role of a few key figures in the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, we will now break away for a quick moment to review A White House Diary and, in particular, what this says about the historic preservation ethic of Lady Bird Johnson.

This exceptional document provides a vivid, beautifully written, day-by-day account of life in the White House in the Johnson Administration. Very early on in the Preface of this over eight hundred page document, Lady Bird asks the question of her time in the White House and of writing the diary, "Why did I record it?" And one of the many answers she provided was this:
I realized shortly after November 22, that - amazed and timorously - I stood in a unique position, as wife of the President of the United States. Nobody else would live through the next months in quite the way that I would and see the events unroll from this vantage point. And this certain portion of time I wanted to preserve as it happened. I wanted to remember it, and I wanted my children and grandchildren to see it through my eyes.
Happily for readers today, Lady Bird took some of the most intimate, private, and homely experiences of her everyday life, and by recording these in such detail, created a collective experience for all with an interest in these times to be part of. Perhaps the greatest value and impact of her diary writing work was to provide valuable insights into the people, personalities, and politics that so defined this tumultuous time in our nation's history.

This need to record and mark important moments was not felt by Lady Bird Johnson alone, but also acknowledged by President Lyndon Johnson too. In a Message to Congress delivered December 1963, the President said our new challenge as a nation was "not to hesitate, not to pause, not to turn about and linger over this evil moment but to continue on our course so that we may fulfill the destiny that history has set for us." This sense of history being made in the present was a strongly held belief by many in the Johnson White House. When Lady Bird reflected on her role, she recounted "I feel like I am suddenly onstage for a part I never rehearsed" (p.16).

One gains valuable insights into the close connections between key figures. To Lady Bird, Stewart Udall was simply referred to as "Stew." The role of other key figures becomes clear. Two of these, Mary Lasker and Laurance Rockefeller figured prominently in preservation and beautification efforts. In fact in the waning hours of the Johnson Administration, Johnson made citations giving each of the the Medal of Freedom. Lady Bird added, "I was glad he was doing it" (p.776).

During her time as First Lady, Johnson took a remarkable interest in Washington, D.C. itself. A Committee on Beautification was formed and had their initial meeting in the Blue Room of the White House on February 11, 1965. At the second meeting of her Beautification Committee in March 1965, a presentation was given on various plans for the National Mall. Ever eager to set ideas into action, immediately following a presentation on the history of planning for the National Mall at the White House, Johnson and her coterie headed out to plant some pansies and dogwood trees (p. 248-249). On another day in January 1966, Lady Bird was found with Brooke Astor, Mary Lasker, Walter Washington, and Nash Castro working on beautification - this time looking at Washington's schools and talking about playgrounds and community parks (p.351).

One feature of the Lady Bird Johnson's routine was what she called the Women Do-er's Luncheon. Lady Bird described the composition and purpose of the group, "The guests for the Women Do-ers Luncheons come from among my own friends and include women known for their interests and achievements in whatever we are going to discuss. Suggestions are occasionally made by a Congressman or a staff member" (p. 238). At one such meeting, Mary Lasker served as the speaker and shared her vision for "Masses of flowers where the masses pass" (p. 238). At another Jane Jacobs, author of The Life and Death of Great American Cities was invited to speak.

One of her most direct references to preservation related to the "great cross-country highway system" as she called it. The federal government at the time paid 90 percent of the cost with the remaining 10 percent assumed by state governments. In reference to this program, Lady Bird Johnson asked a hypothetical question:
One of the big problems has been that when you draw a straight line across the country - which is the way a cost-conscious engineer would do it - what do you do about a National Park or a Wildlife Preserve, and a historic shrine like the Frank Lloyd Wright house? If you go around them, you may spend millions of dollars. If you go through them, you may grossly sacrifice a national treasure. (p. 166)
Lady Bird did not share her opinion on this particular matter, and, in general, avoided taking controversial positions - perhaps knowing that some day anyone and everyone could be reading what she was writing at the moment. What is clear from her actions across many years in the White House, is she had a deeply felt belief in the importance of beauty, history, and culture. This was expressed by the sustained advocacy and support that she provided for preservation and beautification. In Lady Bird Johnson preservation advocates were beneficiaries of the rarest of gifts - a well placed person in the White House able to influence policy at high levels. And, that she did.

In our next installment of "NHPAat50" next Friday, we will discuss the great push for historic preservation.

Friday, July 12, 2013

NHPAat50: The Growing Partnership between Stewart Udall and Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson and Stewart Udall during visit to Grand Teton National Park, August 16, 1964.
LBJ Library Photo by Robert Knudsen. 
While the Task Force was finalizing their recommendations, Stewart Udall and Lady Bird Johnson began to form a personal alliance in support of conservation that included historic preservation as a major goal. During a trip to the Grand Teton National Park in August 16, 1964, Udall spoke extensively about their shared interest in conservation and natural beauty. Liz Carpenter who served as Press Secretary to the First Lady recounted Udall’s connection with Lady Bird as such: “He loved the scenic beauty; they were his parts; and he began to see that he had a very responsive first lady to the wonders of nature.”[i] Lady Bird Johnson spoke with her connection to nature in equally reverent terms. For her it was her East Texas roots and the beauty of Caddo Lake with its gnarled roots that left an early impression and inspired Mrs. Johnson all of her life. In an address at the Grand Tetons on September 7, 1965, she addressed this influence and said: “Each of (our) actions sprang from what nurtures us, and what nurtured me was walking through the piney woods in my own deep East Texas.”[ii]

This thirst for beauty and appreciation of nature did not stop with wide open spaces alone. Both Udall and Lady Bird recognized the importance of more beautiful places where people lived too. Udall at times referred to the “American environment” linking the built environment and natural environment together. In nearly the same breath he asked “what kind of cities do we want to be building” while considering “clearing up the countryside, and cleaning up air and water.”[iii] Likewise, when Lady Bird Johnson hosted Jane Jacobs at the White House for a “Woman Doer Luncheon” on June 16, 1964, she recounted the event in A White House Diary afterwards:
I said I felt the questions we all want answered when it comes to urban life are how to keep size from smothering the individual, crowding him into an impersonal and uncomfortable mold, and how to make a city beautiful. These are questions which writer, planner, and citizen must answer, and one of the front runners with the possible answers was Jane Jacobs, who was all three.[iv]

Lady Bird Johnson and Stewart Udall clearly had shared values. How they transformed this into a movement to encourage conservation and historic preservation is a story of great interest. During a visit to the LBJ Ranch in December 1964, Udall and other Cabinet officials conferred with the President about what they hoped to see included in the 1965 State of the Union Message. Johnson sought to put together “a really virile program that would lift this country to something better than it had ever known, whether it was environmental improvement, improvement of the economy, the ghettos having hope, whatever it was.”[v] As Udall laid out his ideas he found Lady Bird Johnson to be very attentive and knowledgeable when discussing conservation issues. The First Lady asked Udall to contact Liz Carpenter once they all returned to Washington, and to mention the conversation they had in Texas.

Udall followed the First Lady’s instructions and a meeting was planned at the White House. The Queen’s Room was selected for the meeting and the two sat beneath a portrait of Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt. Interestingly, it had not been since the Theodore Roosevelt Administration that “beauty” had been used in the vocabulary of national leaders. That made their selection of location particularly fitting. During the meeting Udall laid out how he thought it would be excellent for the First Lady to serve as a champion of beautification of the nation’s capital. As he conceived it, restoration of the Potomac River would be the President’s personal Washington project while beautification of the city would be Mrs. Johnson’s.[vi]

As a direct outgrowth of this meeting a Committee for a More Beautiful Capital and then a Society for a More Beautiful Capital were formed. The philanthropist Mrs. Albert D. Lasker was selected as President. Appeals followed and contributions were collected for beautification efforts throughout the capital. In one such letter Lady Bird wrote: “As I work with the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, it is helpful for me to know of your interest in this nationwide endeavor to enhance the beauty of our cities and countryside. It is my hope that future generations of Americans will be even more proud of our Nation than we are today.”[vii]

Soon the contributions began pouring in. Lady Bird Johnson took an active interest in the work herself, often driving to visit schools and other sites in Washington D.C. to supervise the work firsthand. She recounted many of these visits in A White House Diary.[viii] This work that the First Lady was engaged in generated a flood of outside interest from garden clubs, town planning boards and citizens with an interested in beautifying their own communities. The interest was so great that an office was established within the White House and a staff member designated whose exclusive role was to handle this ample correspondence. The goal was to serve as a sort of clearing house for ideas and information, and to help one community learn from the successes and accomplishments of another.

In our next installment of "NHPAat50" next Friday, we will review A White House Diary and the preservation ethic of Lady Bird Johnson.

[i] Frantz, Joe B. Interview with Liz Carpenter. April 4, 1969. Credit: LBJ Library.
[ii] Frantz, Joe B. Interview with Liz Carpenter. April 4, 1969. p. 4-5. Credit: LBJ Library.
[iii] Frantz, Joe B. Interview with Stuart Udall. May 19, 1969. Credit: LBJ Library.
[iv] Johnson, Lady Bird. A White House Diary. 2007. p. 169-70.
[v] Frantz, Joe B. Interview with Liz Carpenter. April 4, 1969. p. 6. Credit: LBJ Library.
[vi] Frantz, Joe B. Interview with Liz Carpenter. April 4, 1969. p. 7. Credit: LBJ Library.
[vii] Letter from Mrs. Johnson to Mrs. W.S. Jennings dated September 21, 1965.
[viii] Johnson, Lady Bird. A White House Diary. 2007.