Lady Bird Johnson Begins the America Beautiful Program

The First Lady of the United States promoted numerous projects for the nation’s beautification and for the preservation of scenic beauty. In the process, she not only helped beautify the nation but also helped redefine the nature of the office of First Lady.

Summary of Event

On November 22, 1963, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy brought Lyndon B. Johnson into office as the thirty-sixth president of the United States. Lady Bird Johnson, his wife of twenty-eight years, had long been accustomed to the role of supportive spouse to an important political leader, but she had to decide quickly what issues she would promote as First Lady. Although she had served often as hostess in place of Jacqueline Kennedy during the previous administration, she would have found the unremitting role of hostess for the glittering artistic performances that graced the Kennedy White House uncongenial. Her aesthetic taste had been shaped by a very different cultural background from that of Kennedy, and she was more likely to find beauty in the natural world than in cultural objects. As a young girl who had experienced the early loss of her mother, she had found a measure of solace for her grief in the natural beauty of flowers and trees in and around her native East Texas town of Karnack. Later, in 1936, she assisted her husband during his brief period as director of the National Youth Association of Texas in establishing and landscaping roadside parks in Texas, a project partly designed to provide youth employment during the Depression. America Beautiful program
[kw]Lady Bird Johnson Begins the America Beautiful Program (1964-1969)
[kw]Johnson Begins the America Beautiful Program, Lady Bird (1964-1969)
[kw]America Beautiful Program, Lady Bird Johnson Begins the (1964-1969)
America Beautiful program
[g]North America;1964-1969: Lady Bird Johnson Begins the America Beautiful Program[07860]
[g]United States;1964-1969: Lady Bird Johnson Begins the America Beautiful Program[07860]
[c]Environmental issues;1964-1969: Lady Bird Johnson Begins the America Beautiful Program[07860]
[c]Government and politics;1964-1969: Lady Bird Johnson Begins the America Beautiful Program[07860]
Johnson, Lady Bird
Johnson, Lyndon B.
[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;environmental policy
Carpenter, Liz
Lasker, Mary W.
Castro, Nash
Washington, Walter E.
Udall, Stewart L.
Rockefeller, Laurance Spelman

Mrs. Johnson resolved in 1964 to devote her efforts to enhancing the natural beauty of the nation. She believed that the appearance of the environment influenced the nature of a people; at its best, environmental beauty raised people’s spirits and could influence their actions for the better. Accordingly, she undertook a multifaceted effort that lasted throughout the Johnson presidency and beyond. Its major directions fell under three headings: efforts to beautify Washington, D.C., and thereby establish a model for other urban beautification programs; programs to improve the appearance of the nation’s highways, culminating in the National Highway Beautification Act National Highway Beautification Act (1965) of 1965; and miscellaneous ongoing efforts to promote the environment and to preserve for posterity important sites of scenic beauty.

In an attempt to improve the appearance of the nation’s capital, Mrs. Johnson undertook an ambitious program that revealed her talents at organization and fund-raising. Programs for beautification of cities had existed in the United States since the early twentieth century, when the City Beautiful Movement City Beautiful Movement was widespread, largely through the efforts of garden clubs and other women’s organizations. These volunteer efforts had proven inadequate to keep pace with relentless and rapid urbanization.

As early as June, 1964, as Mrs. Johnson noted in her White House Diary
White House Diary (Johnson) (1970), she engaged Jane Jacobs in conversation, following an invited talk about her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Death and Life of Great American Cities, The (Jacobs) (1961). It occurred to Mrs. Johnson that city environments could be improved for the benefit of all and that projects for beautification might furnish employment opportunities for youth. In 1965, she established the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital Committee for a More Beautiful Capital . That same year, she formed a volunteer committee called the Society for a More Beautiful Capital Society for a More Beautiful Capital to elicit private and corporate gifts in support of the project. Initially, she revived an unfinished project of the Kennedy administration that had proposed to renew and refurbish Pennsylvania Avenue, the Washington thoroughfare leading from the Capitol to the White House.

With the assistance of members of her staff such as Liz Carpenter, her press secretary, and Mary Astell Astell, Mary , her social secretary, Johnson produced a much more comprehensive plan that called for beautifying the entire central section of the city as well as the urban neighborhoods bordering it on three sides. Toward this end, she enlisted the aid of Stewart L. Udall, secretary of the interior, and the National Parks Service in planning and implementing numerous projects. Above all, she recruited civic-minded philanthropists such as Laurance Spelman Rockefeller, Brooke Astor Astor, Brooke , and Mary W. Lasker to promote and fund the project.

The programs undertaken resulted in the planting of millions of flowers along the walks and drives of the Washington area, the establishment of numerous small parks on idle or unused land, and the addition of countless flowering trees all over the city. Azaleas, daffodils, tulips, dogwood trees, and nearly four thousand additional cherry trees began to bloom annually. In all, twenty-five thousand trees, fifty thousand shrubs, and two million bulbs were planted, along with thousands of other flowers. The numerous additional small parks formed from unused tracts of land added beauty, created amenities, and reduced urban litter.

Although efforts to improve parks, school yards, and playgrounds in the less affluent neighborhoods achieved less obvious results, the project did make substantial contributions in those areas also. Thousands of broken windowpanes in school buildings were replaced, and widespread cleanup campaigns succeeded in improving the image of the urban area. These efforts typically involved hundreds of volunteers, including many schoolchildren. As incentives to volunteers, Mrs. Johnson established categories of awards for significant accomplishments in the program and invited winners to the White House to receive their awards.

Less well known were Mrs. Johnson’s efforts on behalf of cultural beauty. She was instrumental in persuading Joseph Hirshhorn Hirshhorn, Joseph to bequeath his priceless collection of impressionist and modern paintings and modern sculpture to the nation. This bequest led to the construction of the Hirshhorn Gallery Hirshhorn Gallery , adjacent to the National Gallery of Art on the National Mall, one of the most striking and artistic buildings in the city’s federal district, and the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden on the National Mall.

Mrs. Johnson’s initiative on behalf of highways culminated in the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. As it was originally conceived, the act was designed to restrict the size, number, and location of billboards along national and interstate highways; to landscape areas along the routes with additional flowers, trees, and shrubs where desirable; and to remove from public view unsightly junkyards, either by screening them with fencing or by relocating them entirely. On these matters, some states that prized scenic beauty, such as Washington, had taken the lead with programs of their own.

The bill provided that three additional cents for every dollar of highway construction expenditures be devoted to the improvement of scenic beauty. Strong opposition to the initiative developed from outdoor advertising interests, and increasing unwillingness on the part of Congress to fund new initiatives made its passage challenging. Mrs. Johnson and her staff labored tirelessly in support of the bill during the long and sometimes acrimonious debate in Congress. Although the bill was finally approved by a reluctant House and Senate, it was watered down in the process, and its final form achieved results that were far below original expectations. Like many other bills of its kind, however, it raised the national consciousness about environmental issues and established a precedent for governmental involvement in improving the environment.

Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification work is honored in 1969 with the dedication of the Lady Bird Johnson Grove in Redwood National Park.

(National Archives)

In addition to these major initiatives, Lady Bird Johnson undertook numerous specific initiatives on behalf of environmental causes. She assumed a leadership role in two Washington conferences on the environment: the White House Conference on Natural Beauty (1966) White House Conference on Natural Beauty (1966) and the National Youth Conference on Natural Beauty and Preservation (1966) National Youth Conference on Natural Beauty and Preservation (1966) . These in turn led to several similar conferences in several states, most notably Texas and Pennsylvania. Her highly publicized trips to national parks were designed to underscore her advocacy of the environment and to encourage preservation of scenic beauty. She delivered numerous speeches urging greater attention to the environment and natural beauty.

More specifically, she spoke out in opposition to proposed projects that would damage the environment. She expressed support for the efforts of organizations such as the Sierra Club to block proposed construction of dams on the Colorado River that would have adversely affected the ecology of the Grand Canyon area. Like other positions she took, this one was not shared by all members of her husband’s administration. After observing from the air scars left by strip mining, she urged the reclamation of mined areas. Further, she aided the effort to expand Redwood National Park in California and encouraged other federal land acquisitions for parks, nature preserves, and nature trails.


Toward the end of her stay in the White House, Lady Bird Johnson was honored by the city of Washington by having Columbia Island in the Potomac River renamed Lady Bird Johnson Park in appreciation of her work for the nation’s capital. The natural beauty of the many trees, shrubs, and flowers planted under her direction continues to enrich the experience of visitors to the nation’s capital. The committee she established for beautification of the city was discontinued, but the Society for a More Beautiful Capital, the volunteer organization, remained to devote further efforts to beautifying the city environment.

One problem that arose during the beautification project also continued: The more public certain grounds and parks were, the greater was the expense of maintaining them. Few, however, have regarded the beautification of the city as anything other than an asset to the nation, well worth the original expense and continued maintenance costs. The Hirshhorn Museum, an indirect consequence of her efforts to attract the Hirshhorn Collection to Washington, takes its place among the numerous noble constructions in its area, not only as a shelter for works of art but also as a monument to modern architecture in its own right.

The Highway Beautification Act survived in only a weakened form of its original version. Opposition in Congress, spearheaded by outdoor advertising interests, severely limited the regulatory powers in the bill and pared its funding. Measures calling for compensation when signs were removed slowed their removal from noncommercial areas. Shared enforcement responsibilities between the Department of the Interior and the states resulted in bureaucratic entanglements and delays, yet within twenty years of its passage, thousands of junkyards had been relocated or screened by fences to remove their blight on the landscape. Not only had the size and location of outdoor signs been limited by law, but also many thousands had been removed from rural and scenic areas. The bill assured progress toward its objectives, yet none of its goals has been fully realized.

Lady Bird Johnson helped raise national awareness of the environment. Through combining beautification with the larger environmental objectives of preservation and protection, she contributed to substantial progress in both areas. She left the White House in 1969 realizing that much of the advancement of her programs would devolve on independent organizations, state governments, and local volunteers, all of whom had important contributions to make. Although limited availability of public funds meant that beautification could not meet Mrs. Johnson’s early hope of increasing urban jobs, programs to improve the environment, such as volunteer projects to reduce litter, made gratifying progress. Especially in states where tourism is important, efforts to dedicate public resources to environmental improvement have been established and increased. In part because of her efforts, the Johnson administration added more than one million acres to the national parks system, secured nearly two hundred additional miles of national seashore, and enacted legislation protecting wild and scenic rivers.

After leaving Washington, Mrs. Johnson remained active on behalf of the environment, participating in many of these efforts. She actively engaged herself in the Town Lake Project, which beautified the portion of Austin, Texas, along the Colorado River. Her major project was the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin, which she founded in 1982 on her seventieth birthday. Its assumption is that natural beauty of the environment can be most easily and efficiently enhanced through planting native flowers and shrubs, especially since these species require less care than exotics. The center, which has attracted numerous outside grants and operates with its own endowment, is designed for the study, preservation, and reestablishment of native plants in private and public places. America Beautiful program

Further Reading

  • Califano, Joseph E., Jr. The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. Califano, a former aide to President Johnson, explores the major issues that marked the Johnson presidency. Although he devotes little attention to the beautification program, he does discuss the legislative background of the Highway Beautification Act, labeling the White House management inept.
  • Carpenter, Liz. Ruffles and Flourishes. 2d ed. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1993. Memoir of the White House years by Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary. The book narrates an insider’s first-hand account of the beautification programs.
  • Gould, Lewis L. Lady Bird Johnson and the Environment. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1988. Gould provides the fullest account available to date of Mrs. Johnson’s work on behalf of the environment, analyzing all aspects of the beautification program. In addition to its historical account of the subject, it includes a wealth of biographical material. An appended bibliographical essay provides valuable scholarly information about relevant unpublished materials in the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.
  • _______. Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999. Builds on the 1988 study to document the First Lady’s public and private commitment to the environment, including the extent to which her environmental activism entailed the creation of the bureaucratic structure and the tactics that have been used by first ladies ever since for their own causes. Bibliographic references and index.
  • _______. “Lady Bird Johnson: Woman of Vision, Planter of Dreams.” Texas Highways, April, 1994, 14-17. Gould gives a condensed and richly illustrated account of Johnson’s work on behalf of natural beauty and the environment from her earliest youth.
  • Johnson, Lady Bird. A White House Diary. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. A small portion of a much longer White House Diary in manuscript housed in the Johnson Presidential Library, the book provides valuable insight into Johnson’s role in beautification projects and environmental causes. She also gratefully acknowledges the contributions of her many associates in the effort. She records meetings of relevant committees and her travels, speeches, and appearances related to the environment.
  • Johnson, Lady Bird, and Carleton B. Lees. Wildflowers Across America. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988. A richly illustrated book on wildflowers of America and an account of the National Wildflower Research Center, the book includes valuable chapters by Lady Bird Johnson recounting her experience working with the beautification program. Offers valuable information on her efforts and a rationale for undertaking them. The book’s foreword and a chapter entitled “The Beautification Movement and Highway Legislation” are especially helpful.
  • Murphy, David. Texas Bluebonnet: Lady Bird Johnson. New York: Nova Science, 2005. This brief general monograph on the First Lady’s life and work includes a chapter on the America Beautiful program. Bibliographic references and index.

Roosevelt Creates Jackson Hole National Monument

Keep America Beautiful Is Founded

Mission 66 Plan Is Implemented

Congress Limits the Use of Highway Billboards

Five States Take Steps to Halt Lake Erie Pollution

White Explores the Judeo-Christian Roots of Environmental Problems

Johnson Establishes North Cascades National Park

Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed

Environmental Protection Agency Is Created