WASHINGTON – First lady Jill Biden paid tribute Friday to Jacqueline Kennedy, a predecessor 60 years ago, for her pivotal role in preventing the teardown of historic buildings on iconic Lafayette Square near the White House.
Biden helped the White House Historical Association, an organization that Kennedy helped spearhead, unveil a medallion of the former first lady, designed by American artist Chas Fagan in front of the association’s office on the square.
The wife of President John F. Kennedy is widely credited with ushering in an emphasis on historic preservation at the White House during her 1,036 days as first lady. She played a critical role in saving some of Lafayette Square's buildings from the wrecking ball.
The square, just north of the White House, over the years has become a gathering place for protesters, from suffragists in the early 20th century to Vietnam demonstrators in the 1960s to Americans speaking out for policing reform in 2020.
In quieter daily times, it is a city oasis for tourists and for office workers on lunch breaks.
The bas relief of Kennedy sits in a new garden at the front of the association’s office, known as Decatur House. It includes one of her best-known quotations: “The White House belongs to the American people.”
Jill Biden, the wife of President Joe Biden, said Kennedy worked to save the park and surrounding historic townhouses “because we all deserve to experience our rich history, the full, complex and beautiful story of who we are.”
“Together, we are opening the doors of the people’s house wider and wider to welcome all those who are part of this nation,” she said.
Jacqueline Kennedy was an outspoken and effective critic of a plan in the early 1960s for a massive new modern office building to be constructed on the square. The project would have led to several 19th century row houses bordering the park being razed.
Her husband and the Commission on Fine Arts in 1961 agreed on a design for the new office building, but a local civic group, known as the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, staunchly opposed the idea.
The activists argued that the new office building should be located behind the 19th century row houses, and that two taller and more recent office buildings should be demolished. Members of the committee presented their plan to the president, published their views in the newspaper, and even corresponded with Jacqueline Kennedy’s mother, according to the National Park Service.
The first lady let her husband know that she wasn’t a fan of what was being proposed for the square, writing that it would be “the most unsuitable, violently modern building which would be a jarring note on the square.”
Her husband listened.
In 1962, President Kennedy hired the architect John Carl Warnecke to find a better solution. Warnecke began with a historical study of the square, paying more attention to context than previous architects, according to the National Park Service.
In the end, the new federal offices were built behind the historic row houses on the square, and in 1970 Lafayette Square was designated as a National Historic Landmark District.