WASHINGTON (AP) – First Lady Jill Biden paid tribute on Friday to her predecessor, Jacqueline Kennedy, 60 years ago, for her important role in preventing the destruction of historic buildings in the iconic Lafayette Square near the White House.
Biden helped the White House Historical Society, an organization Kennedy helped spearhead, unearth a medallion of the former First Lady, designed by American artist Chas Fagan, in front of the association’s office in the square.
The wife of President John F. Kennedy is widely credited with his emphasis on historic preservation during his 1,036 days as First Lady at the White House. 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 has over the years become a meeting place for protesters, from suffragists in the early 20th century to Vietnamese demonstrators in the 1960s and Americans speaking out for police reform in 2020.
At quieter times of the day, it’s a city oasis for tourists and office workers on their lunch breaks.
Kennedy’s relief sits in a new garden known as Decatur House, in front of the association’s office. It includes one of his best-known quotes: “The White House belongs to the American people.”
President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, said Kennedy was working to save the park and the historic townhouses around it “because we all deserve to experience our rich history, the complete, complex and beautiful story of who we are.”
“Together, we are opening the doors of the public house wider and wider to welcome everyone who is a part of this nation,” he said.
Jacqueline Kennedy was an outspoken and influential critic of the plan for a huge new modern office building to be built on the square in the early 1960s. The project would lead to the razing of the 19th-century row houses surrounding the park.
Her husband and the Fine Arts Commission agreed on a design for the new office building in 1961, but a local civic group known as the Federal City of 100s Committee vehemently opposed the idea.
Activists argued that the new office building should be placed behind the 19th-century row houses and that the two higher and newer office buildings should be demolished. According to the National Park Service, committee members presented their plans to the president, published their opinions in the newspaper, and even corresponded with Jacqueline Kennedy’s mother.
The First Lady informed her husband that she was not a fan of what was being proposed for the square, and wrote that it would be “the most inappropriate, violently modern building on the square that would be a shocking note.”
Her husband listened.
In 1962, President Kennedy hired architect John Carl Warnecke to come up with a better solution. Warnecke began with a historical study of the square, paying more attention to the context than previous architects, according to the National Park Service.
Eventually, new federal offices were built behind the historic row houses on the square, and in 1970 Lafayette Square was designated a National Historic Landmark District.
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