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Beautification: A Legacy of Lady Bird Johnson

“Where flowers bloom, so does hope - and hope is the precious, indispensable ingredient.”1

A portrait of Lady Bird Johnson with short brown hair and a delicate yellow dress.
Official White House portrait of Lady Bird Johnson

Elizabeth Shoumatoff, 1968. Library of Congress

During her tenure as First Lady of the United States (1963-1969), Lady Bird Johnson served as a champion of conservation efforts, advocated for the creation of National Park Service units, lobbied for the passage of environmental legislation, and campaigned for the improvement of the character of the nation’s highway system.

In a similar vein of enthusiasm and commitment, she initiated the Beautification Project as a solution to America’s urban ills. Urban renewal projects and the expansion of highway infrastructure had fractured communities. Downtown centers and neighborhoods were becoming empty and blighted. Inner city waterways and urban cores were heavily polluted.

Beautification, as conceived by Lady Bird Johnson, was concerned with matters of environmental improvement and condition enhancements. Quoting Churchill and expanding on his concept, Lady Bird stated that, “‘First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us.’ The same is true of our highways, our parks, our public buildings, and the environment we create. They shape us.”2

Beautification was far more complex than a garden club project. According to Johnson, “Though the word beautification makes the concept sound merely cosmetic, it involves much more: clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas. To me…beautification means our total concern for the physical and human quality we pass on to our children and the future.”3

A seated audience watches a woman who speaks from behind a tall podium with two microphones, next to a sign that says "White House Conference on Natural Beauty"
Lady Bird Johnson at Conference for Beautification of Washington, DC

Photo by Warren K. Leffler. Library of Congress, U.S. News and World Report magazine photograph collection (2016647256)

Lady Bird Johnson selected her adopted hometown of Washington, D.C. as the pilot city to show the nation how Beautification could enhance the overall quality of life. The city afforded Johnson the perfect opportunity to showcase the potential of the program. The prominence of Washington, D.C. garnered national visibility to highlight the progress of the effort.

Lady Bird Johnson formed a coalition of both public and private entities, including Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, local Washington, D.C. government officials, philanthropist, architects, planners, landscape architects and most importantly private citizens, including school groups and neighborhood beautification committees.4

The efforts of the coalition galvanized the citizens of Washington, D.C. The Committee for a More Beautiful Capital created reports detailing findings, plan proposals, and accomplishments.5 Design guidelines were planned for neighborhoods.6 A national public relations campaign produced such articles as “The ABC’s of Beautification,” and “Beautification: You too can help.”7 Following in the example of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, the White House created two documentaries - Mrs. Johnson Goes to Washington and Showcase for the Nation - to highlight the successes of the program.

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[Below is an edited scene list that was provided for this film, from the LBJ Library audiovisual archives. Useful shot descriptions are included where possible, although most have been cut for length. For more information please contact johnson.library@nara.gov.]

Landscape and floral scenery around Washington, D.C.

wide shot flowerbed by road, Washington Monument in background Flowerbed by Potomac River, Jefferson Memorial in background LS Capitol building, white flowers in foreground

Scenery, Lady Bird Johnson and LBJ in field of wildflowers, LBJ Ranch, Texas

Fade to wide shot LBJ Ranch wide shot LBJ Ranch LBJ Ranch exterior wide shot Pedernales River banks Medium shot Pedernales River banks Point of view from behind LBJ, Lady Bird Johnson walking outside Close-up Pedernales River Medium shot LBJ, Lady Bird Johnson kneeling in wildflowers Close-up Lady Bird Johnson sitting in wildflowers Medium shot LBJ laying, Lady Bird Johnson sitting in wildflowers Close-up wildflowers

White House exterior in winter

Still photographs: Lady Bird Johnson's first Beautification Committee meeting

Color still: Lady Bird Johnson, Sec. Udall, zoom out to committee Color still: Sec. Udall, Lady Bird Johnson, Committee viewing artwork, zoom in painting

Lady Bird Johnson's first Beatification project (Washington, D.C. park triangle), 3/9/1965 Dissolve to ?, Sec. Stewart Udall, pan right to Lady Bird Johnson, zoom out, tilt down Lady Bird Johnson using ceremonial shovel, fade to black

Lady Bird Johnson's committee trip aboard the USS Sequoia, 5/19/1965

Fade to Lady Bird Johnson boarding yacht Fade to Lady Bird Johnson boarding yacht, shaking captain's hand USS Sequoia in river Committee seated in Sequoia talking

Washington, D.C. scenery, Washington monument, Jefferson memorial, flowers

Lady Bird Johnson attends commemorative planting of cherry tree, Hains Point, Washington, DC, 4/13/1966

Lady Bird Johnson at presentation of playground equipment gift from Mrs. Diaz Ordaz (First Lady of Mexico), 3/8/1967

Lady Bird Johnson at dedication of water fountain at Hains Point

Lady Bird Johnson at daffodil bulb planting, Columbia Island, 10/20/1967

Bus driving up, pan left; Lady Bird Johnson boarding bus Bus name: "Daffodil Special" Dissolve to Lady Bird Johnson walking with Committee Close-up Lady Bird Johnson, Mayor Washington planting flowers

Lady Bird Johnson at Terrill Jr. High School dedication of the new school landscaping, 12/06/1965 Fade to Lady Bird Johnson at Terrell? Jr. High School Lady Bird Johnson, Mayor Washington standing outdoors

Lady Bird Johnson at Buchanan School playground dedication, 5/7/1968 Medium shot Mrs. Vincent Astor at podium, Lady Bird Johnson listening

Lady Bird Johnson visits her Trailblazer program participants, 8/17/1967

Watts Branch Park Beatification

Washington business district Beatification program

H Street plaza BW still: Washington D.C. street Dissolve to sign: "F Street" Medium shot F Street walkway

New York Ave.

Businesses around Washington D.C. improving their appearance

Lady Bird Johnson's Beatification Awards ceremonies, 1966-1968 First National Youth Conference, 9/15/1967 BW still photographs: White House Conference on Natural Beauty, 5/24/1965; Arbor Day plantings, 4/30/1965 Lady Bird Johnson's committee meeting on signing of Redwood Forest Act Committee looking on Sec. Udall, Lady Bird Johnson sitting Committee listening on, pan right Sec. Udall, Lady Bird Johnson sitting, Lady Bird Johnson talking, zoom in wide shot Committee, pan right Close-up Mayor Washington speaking Close-up Lady Bird Johnson Lady Bird Johnson traveling across country, giving speeches, dedications, walking outdoors

Fade to clouds Close-up Lady Bird Johnson in plane Point of view from air wide shot scenery Dissolve to crowd, banner: "Welcome Mrs. Johnson Montevideo High School Band" Lady Bird Johnson at podium speaking Dissolve to Lady Bird Johnson at podium speaking Monument being dedicated wide shot lake, pan left Medium shot Lady Bird Johnson at podium by lake Medium shot Lady Bird Johnson by landmark at Padre Island Lady Bird Johnson walking on beach Dissolve to rocky seashore, tilt up Lady Bird Johnson standing by flower Medium shot Lady Bird Johnson standing by flower

Lady Bird Johnson speaking at Columbia Island ceremony, Columbia Island scenery, Lady Bird Johnson Park dedicated, 11/12/1968

Beautification scenery around Washington D.C., natural landscaping, playgrounds, parks

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Duration:
23 minutes, 3 seconds

"The Story of Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson's Beautification Program" - This film is from the LBJ Library moving picture collection created by the White House Naval Photographic Unit, aka the Navy Films. The films consist of monthly reports on the activities of President and Lady Bird Johnson from 1963-1969. This edited content is from the LBJ Library audiovisual archives.

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Beautification in Action

The first category of projects were classified as environmental improvements. The efforts included the mobilization of neighborhood and school groups to address causes, advocacy for the expansion of Washington, D.C.’s mass transit system, the introduction of nature into the urban core, and the renovation of historic buildings. Working with community and school groups, Lady Bird Johnson established Project Pride to reduce litter in neighborhoods. Task forces made efforts to repair the conditions of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Groups cleaned the shorelines and tributaries of the many small creeks and streams.8

The next step was the development of a series of pocket parks in the adjoining neighborhoods. Trees were planted along the medians of avenues, street sidewalks, and NPS-maintained small park reservations in order to create an urban canopy and improve the visual and air quality of the city. Vacant buildings were rehabilitated, rather than torn down, and converted to community and recreational facilities, preserving architectural heritage and strengthening neighborhoods by providing meeting spaces.

Flowers in a City
A sidewalk forms a "V" around a patch of grass with benches, leafless trees, and trash cans, labeled "Before." Benches along a sidewalk face in toward an area of grass and flower beds, labeled "After."
Before
After
Images in Flowers in a City: Small Parks in Washington, D.C., United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Washington, DC, 1966 (pg. 10-11).



The second category of projects focused on matters of aesthetics. These efforts included rehabilitating existing parks, preparing plans for previously unimproved parcels, creating visitor facilities and activating urban spaces, developing design guidelines and standards, and improving pedestrian circulation.

Johnson believed that the most successful projects should include “masses of color where the masses pass.” Working with the National Park Service in the monumental core, along parkways, and on select avenues in the city, large swaths of mass plantings were installed that created a high visual contrast from the surrounding environment. Tightly spaced plants in beds of organic forms ensured the desired effect by creating blocks of color. The selection of different varieties ensured a gradual play of color. Daffodils lined the region’s parkways and monument grounds, while clusters of azaleas introduced color to Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.

Two women in brightly-colored dresses pose on a sidewalk in front of a flower bed, with white-blooming flowers forming a border around red blooming flowers.
Lady Bird Johnson and Liz Carpenter posing in front of flower bed in Washington, DC.

Robert Knudsen, LBJ Library, White House Photo Office collection (D1112-10)

In other small parks and triangular reservations, the National Park Service installed floral displays. Smaller in scale than mass plantings, floral displays had seasonal planting plans, rotating between varieties of tulips in the spring, an eclectic mix of perennials and annuals in the summer, with a conclusion of vibrant chrysanthemums in the autumn. The most noted example is the Floral Library, located south of the Washington Monument. This library of flowers adds color to the monument grounds, and serves as an example or demonstration garden for different types of tulips and plants.

A collection of flower beds of varying colors and texture are divided by short turf, with the Washington Monument behind
Mid-summer blooms of the Floral Library near the Washington Monument.

NPS Photo / NCR Photo Library

For a more lasting impact, Lady Bird Johnson advocated for the further greening and softening of the city by planting trees. At predetermined entrances to the city, or ‘gateways,’ including Rosslyn Circle and the Baltimore Washington Parkway, landscape plans consisting of flowering trees and shrubs were developed and planted in order to create a hospitable welcome to the city. The effort also included adding understory plantings of flowering dogwood and redbud trees to provide splashes of spring color along the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Following in the example of First Lady Helen Taft, Johnson added cherry trees around the Tidal Basin to fill the gaps where they were lost, and introduced a planting of cherry trees around the edge of Hains Point. Other improvements included the roadway median of Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, where an allee of deciduous magnolias were planted, and the creation of pedestrian malls along F Street NW and M Street SW made by converting the medians into tree lined plaza spaces, that provided needed shade and afforded passive recreation opportunities.

Beyond the introduction of new floral material, Beautification also embraced improvements to hardscape - or, the more substantial built environment. In order to make spaces more inviting, the National Park Service introduced new site furniture, including benches, trash receptacles, and information kiosks, and installed new pathways, sidewalks, and plaza spaces. To further activate these spaces, water features were installed to add both movement and sound. Examples range from the modern-designed Haupt Fountains in President’s Park to the former large water jet placed at the end of Hains Point. In select Capitol Hill parcels, such as Lincoln Park and Stanton Park, new playground equipment was installed in order to better serve the community.9

Water sprays up out of the center of fountain that is round pool of water in a stone square base, surrounded by a red brick patio and an urban landscape
The Haupt Fountain is an example of the landscape features that were introduced to activate city spaces.

NPS Photo / NCR CLP

Beautification Today

Lady Bird’s legacy is still evident in Washington, D.C. today. Daffodil drifts soften the hillsides of the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, as well as the George Washington Memorial Parkway and Lady Bird Johnson Park. Cherry trees line the road of Hains Point, sprays of blossoms frame views in the monumental core, and the Floral Library is a burst of color in the springtime. Children continue to play in the Capitol Hill park playgrounds under the shade of trees.

Street trees line the avenues throughout the city, as ongoing initiatives look to expand the canopy further. Flower beds enliven Washington, D.C.’s small parks and furnishings make for an enjoyable experience. Efforts to clean the city’s waterways have continued into the present and plans are currently underway to develop a river walk along the banks of the Anacostia River to better connect D.C. residents to the water. “The environment after all is where we all meet; where we all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share. It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become.”10

Clusters of daffodils with long green leaves and yellow flowers bloom across a flat area, with leafless trees in the distance.
Clusters of blooming daffodils brighten Lady Bird Johnson Park in Washington, DC.

NPS Photo / Maureen Joseph

1 Claudia Taylor Johnson, “Remarks at the Annual Convention of the Associated Press Managing Editors Association,” (Washington, D.C. October 1, 1965).
2 Claudia Taylor Johnson, “B.Y. Morrison lecture at the AIA annual convention,” (Portland, Oregon June 26, 1968).
3 “The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: A Legacy of Beauty,” last modified November 6th, 2013, https://landscapenotes.com/2013/11/06/the-lady-bird-johnson-wildflower-center-a-legacy-of-beauty/
4 Lewis L. Gould, Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady Lewis L.Gould, (University of Kansas, 1999) 48-51.
5 The Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, “Report to the President from the First Lady’s Committee For a More Beautiful Capital,” (Washington, D.C. 1968).
6 Lawrence Halprin and Associates, A Report from Lawrence Halprin and Associates to Mrs. Johnson’s Committee For A More Beautiful Capital (Washington, D.C. January 1967).
7 “The ABCs of Beautification,” The Washington Post Potomac, March 27, 1966.
8 White House Naval Photographic Unit, “Showcase of the Nation: The Beautification Program” (Washington, D.C. 1969), MP 472. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cd2t2MsOMnc
9 Darwina Neal, Beautification Files (National Capital Region of the National Park Service).
10 Claudia Taylor Johnson “Speech at Yale University,” (New Haven, Connecticut, October 9, 1967).

Last updated: November 13, 2020