Melania’s tennis pavilion

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Rendering of tennis pavilion proposed for White House. (National Capital Planning Commission)

It will be of some modest good cheer for most readers of this blog to learn that a classical tennis pavilion is under construction in the back yard of the White House. The project has been led by First Lady Melania Trump, who, before leaving school to pursue a modeling career in Milan, was enrolled in architecture school at the University of Ljubljana, in her native Slovenia.

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Elevations for all sides of pavilion (NCPC)

Fortunately, she did not get a degree in architecture (as she initially claimed); in most cases, such a document confers upon the graduate little beyond poor taste. Mrs. Trump did not design the tennis pavilion, but her taste appears to have influenced the design created in-house by the National Park Service. After submittal to the National Capital Planning Commission last year, it was approved.

The facility is described in the June 6, 2019, approval of the project as “heavily influenced by the White House architecture,” adding that it will “incorporate architectural elements such as a colonnade, large floor-to-ceiling windows and fanlight windows in the façades, [will be] clad in limestone and have a copper roof.”

No doubt the White House boasts all of those features (except that it is sandstone painted white), but to me the tennis pavilion looks less like the Executive Mansion and more like a tiny version of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon, her hideaway (or cottage, as they say in Newport) on the grounds of the Palais de Versailles. The Petit Trianon was completed during the Louis XV administration, 32 years before the White House opened in 1800.

Of course, Antoinette, queen to Louis XVI, was guillotined during the French Revolution. She was not exactly a woman of the people. She redesigned the Petit Trianon to minimize contact with her servants. Her “Let them eat cake” remark, even if falsely attributed, further damaged her reputation. America’s current first lady has committed no such sins against propriety, and indeed, in spite of her experience in architecture school, has superb taste – especially compared with her husband, whose taste for classical interiors is marred by a fetish for gold leaf. His taste in exteriors is, it seems, not even classical.

Nevertheless, the Donald has been implicated in a plot to inflict beauty on Washington, D.C. On Feb. 5, a proposed White House executive order entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” was leaked to the architectural press. The leak inspired a raucous debate between modernists and classicists that has evaporated since the onset of the coronavirus crisis. Still, classicists hope that the first lady’s tennis pavilion is evidence that the White House supports the E.O., that it has not been strangled in its crib, and that the discussion of its merits will resume when the coronavirus departs, after which the order will be signed by the president.

The National Civic Art Society, a Washington think tank, is believed to have drafted the executive order, but who, if anyone, put the bug in its ear?

Dezeen, a magazine devoted to bad architecture, in a March 11 article “Melania Trump unveils classical Tennis Pavilion at White House,” with no evidence, blamed the E.O. on the president himself:

President Trump, Melania Trump’s husband, expressed his love for classical architecture earlier this year in a proposed draft order that would require all new federal buildings to be built in the style.

Well, I hope so. I hope that rather than leaping to conclusions from the mere existence of a proposed White House executive order, Dezeen’s Eleanor Gibson has ironclad sources able to confirm that it arose from President Trump’s “love for classical architecture.”

Maybe. But I think it more likely that his wife put him up to it.

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Location of tennis pavilion site. White House is on top. (NCPC)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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8 Responses to Melania’s tennis pavilion

  1. [The following is from Jan Michl, the design theorist, whose comment from Norway for some reason would not post to the comment section, though his picture did appear in the comments log:]

    Hi David! One more reason why it indeed might have come via the First Lady is the fact that she hails from Slovenia and that its capital, Ljubljana, was given its distinctive identity by the architect Jože Plečnik (1872-1957) a modern classicist of sorts. As a person interested in design and architecture, Melania was certainly familiar with Plečnik’s highly original buildings and designs.

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  2. honza97 says:

    Hi David! One more reason why it indeed might have come via the First Lady is the fact that she hails from Slovenia and that its capital, Ljubljana, was given its distinctive identity by the architect Jože Plečnik (1872-1957) a modern classicist of sorts. As a person interested in design and architecture, Mrs. Trump was certainly familiar with Plečnik’s highly original buildings and designs.

    Like

  3. honza97 says:

    Hi David! One more reason why it indeed might have come via the First Lady is the fact that she hails from Slovenia and that its capital, Ljubljana, was given its distinctive identity by the architect Jože Plečnik (1872-1957) a modern classicist of sorts. As a person interested in design and architecture, Melania was certainly familiar with Plečnik’s highly original buildings and designs.

    Like

  4. Lewis Dana says:

    March 11…? Wonderful timing on this announcement. It’s a nice building and it certainly complements the White House complex.

    But really. As noted, his Orangeness doesn’t play tennis. Even though the portrait of him in tennis whites paid for by his “charity” and donated to that worthy cause, the club house at Mar e Lago would seem to indicate the contrary.

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  5. LazyReader says:

    And cost a lot of money. President trump doesn’t play tennis, I don’t think any of his kids either. Fact is beautiful as it may be, it’s a waste of money.
    If I were president my first act would be to audit the federal reserve, the Pentagon thru an independent agency, audit review ALL federal properties and begin selling off the ones NOT in use. The government has TONS of vacant properties nationwide, some they don’t even know they have. They should do an inventory before deciding to build anymore stuff.

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