First Lady Jill Biden on Friday praised Jacqueline Kennedy, a predecessor of 60 years ago, for her pivotal role in preventing the demolition of historic buildings in iconic Lafayette Square near the White House.
Biden helped the White House Historical Society, an organization that Kennedy helped lead, unveil a medal for the former first lady, designed by American artist Chas Fagan, in front of the society’s office in the square.
The wife of President John F. Kennedy is widely credited with emphasizing historic preservation in the White House during her 1,036 days as First Lady. She played an important role in saving some of the buildings in Lafayette Square from being destroyed by the ball.
The plaza north of the White House has over the years become a gathering place for protesters, from women’s suffrage advocates in the early 20th century to Vietnam protesters in the 1960s to Americans speaking out about police reform in 2020.
In quieter everyday times, it is the city’s oasis for tourists and office workers on their lunch breaks.
A prominent Kennedy statue is located in a new lawn in the front of the Society’s office, known as Decatur’s House. It includes one of her most famous quotes: “The White House belongs to the American people.”
Jill Biden, wife of President Joe Biden, said Kennedy worked to save the park and the historic homes around it “because we all deserve to experience our rich history, the full, complex and beautiful story of who we are.”
“Together, we open the doors of the people’s house wider and wider to welcome everyone who is part of this nation,” she said.
Jacqueline Kennedy was an outspoken and effective critic of a plan in the early 1960s to build a massive modern office building in the square. The project could have led to the demolition of many of the 19th century row houses adjacent to the park.
Her husband and the Fine Arts Committee agreed in 1961 to design the new office building, but a local civic group, known as the Federal City’s Hundred Committee, vehemently opposed the idea.
Activists argued that the new office building should be located behind the 19th century row houses, and that two taller and newer office buildings should be demolished. Committee members presented their plan to the president, published their views in the newspaper, and even reached out to Jacqueline Kennedy’s mother, according to the National Park Service.
The first lady let her husband know that she was not a fan of what was proposed for the square, writing that it would be “the most inappropriate and violent modern building which would be a sore note in the square”.
Her husband listened.
In 1962, President Kennedy hired architect John Carl Warnick to find a better solution. Warnecke began with a historical study of the field, paying more attention to context than previous architects, according to the National Park Service.
Eventually, new federal offices were built behind the square’s historic row houses, and in 1970 Lafayette Square was designated a National Historic District.