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Lady Bird Johnson's I-95 Landscape-Landmark Tour
If It's Beautifying They Want
In the 1964 presidential campaign, President Lyndon B. Johnson defeated his Republican rival, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, in a landslide victory. From the perspective of the 21st century, historians find many intriguing aspects of this pivotal election and how it altered the political landscape and set changes in motion that shaped our world. History, for the most part, has overlooked its impact on roadside beauty.
As the President and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, criss-crossed States by road during the campaign, she informed her husband of her feelings about the roadside junkyards they saw along the way. During remarks on conservation in Portland, Oregon, on September 17, 1964, the President told his audience that the auto junkyards they had seen during the campaign "are driving my wife mad." She had speculated that if he lost the election, "one of the advantages of getting defeated is to give her some time to get out and do something about cleaning up the countryside and these old junkyards along our beautiful driveways." He preferred to win the election and then "develop a national policy for the control and disposal of technological and industrial waste."
As the campaign continued, his Administration began searching for solutions. As U.S. News and World Report explained, the President's references to the subject during the campaign prompted applause, so "the President observed: 'If it's beautifying they want, it's beautifying they'll get.'"
On February 9, 1965, within 3 weeks of renewing his oath of office, President Johnson submitted a message to Congress on stewardship of the country's natural bounty. "It would be a neglectful generation indeed, indifferent alike to the judgment of history and the command of principle, which failed to preserve and extend such a heritage for its descendants." His proposals covered, cities, counties, pollution, and rivers, as well as highways.
One of the culprits was the modern highway, which "may wipe out the equivalent of a 50-acre park with every mile." Recognizing that "ours is an automobile society," the President did not want to curtail roads. He wanted to make roads the "highways to the enjoyment of nature and beauty." The task was twofold. "First, to insure that roads themselves are not destructive of nature and natural beauty. Second, to make our roads ways to recreation and pleasure."
In a lengthy interview in U.S. News and World Report for its issue of February 22, 1965, Mrs. Johnson discussed the wide range of ways to beautify America. As for the junkyards that prompted her husband's initiative, she said:
Asked if she was responsible for the President's suggestion that the national highway program be used to encourage the planting of wildflowers, she replied:
Mrs. Johnson answered a question about the need for a national law to control billboards "so people could see all these flowers":
Asked if the country needed a "Department of Beauty," Mrs. Johnson did not think so. However, she was optimistic that the country would be prettier in 10 years.
The President launched several highway initiatives. He directed Secretary of Commerce John T. Connor, whose Department housed the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR), to ensure landscaping would be part of all Interstate and Federal-aid primary and urban highways. Johnson also planned to introduce legislation on effective control of billboards and "unsightly, beauty-destroying junkyards and auto graveyards along our highways."
Despite the positive reception the President's America the Beautiful initiative received from the public and in the press, it proved controversial when the rights of private property owners clashed with public interests. Billboards, for example, had been criticized for decades, but attempts to control them had met with limited success. For example, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1958 had declared that control of outdoor advertising was "in the public interest" and had launched a Bonus Program for that purpose. The bonus was a 0.5-percent increase in the Federal share of Interstate construction costs, with the revenue coming from the general treasury rather than the Highway Trust Fund. However, by 1965, only 20 States, with one-fourth of Interstate mileage within their borders, had entered into bonus agreements, despite several extensions of the original time limit (from July 1, 1961, to June 30, 1965). At its peak, the bonus program covered 25 States, two of which dropped out before receiving a bonus. A total of some $44.65 million was paid to the 23 remaining States (Congress has not appropriated funds for the program since theearly 1970s).
Given this limited success, the prospects for President Johnson's efforts to control billboards were uncertain. Because the First Lady was closely identified with this initiative, she decided to embark on a "Landscape-Landmark Tour" into Virginia on May 11, 1965, to promote the America the Beautiful campaign before the opening of the White House Conference on Natural Beauty, May 24 and 25. The tour also coincided with the President's "See America" drive to encourage Americans to "visit the U.S.A." as a way of improving the balance of payments by spending their money in their home country, rather than foreign countries.
The tour began at the White House, where President and Mrs. Johnson greeted Mary Connor, wife of Secretary Connor, and the wives of all other members of the President's Cabinet except Secretary of State Dean Rusk's wife, Virginia, who was not able to participate; Laurance Rockefeller, chairman of the White House Conference, and his wife; Nash Castro of the National Park Service (NPS); State Senator Fred Farr, who would be appointed the Federal Highway Administration's first Highway Beautification Coordinator; and Federal Highway Administrator Rex Whitton and his wife, Callie Maud.
At about 8:30 a.m., participants entered a chartered bus that would take them on the tour. The President, who grumbled about the early hour, told them, "Y'all have a good time." A second bus carried 40 or so reporters from all media, including the news bureaus of the three television networks.
The tour began with a roundabout scenic journey on the George Washington Memorial Parkway along the Potomac River and then on I-495/Capital Beltway to the Henry G. Shirley Highway (I-95), instead of the more direct route south from the White House via the Shirley Highway. Whitton provided a running commentary as the bus rolled along. Two uniformed bus hostesses passed out homemade cookies provided by Mrs. Whitton along with coffee and soft drinks.
The extra time needed for the circuitous journey allowed Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey's wife, Muriel, to catch up with the tour. Because of heavy traffic in Rock Creek Park, she had missed the departure from the White House. Her car caught up with the group at the intersection of the Capital Beltway and Shirley Highway. The bus pulled over to let her aboard. The two tour buses continued south on I-95, which had been completed to Richmond the previous October.
In her diary, Mrs. Johnson described her thoughts as the tour got underway:
The first stop was the Dumfries Wayside Shelter on I-95. Mrs. Johnson joined Virginia Governor Albertis Harrison in unveiling a plague marking the occasion.
During the ceremony, Whitton said:
He then introduced Mrs. Johnson, saying:
Mrs. Johnson said:
According to an account of the trip in the June 1965 issue of the BPR newsletter News in Public Roads:
Mrs. Johnson recalled the day in her diary:
The wife of Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall complained to Castro of the NPS, "Nash, that dogwood is never going to live if its planted that deep." He promised to have someone from the NPS replant the tree at a higher level.
The tour left I-95 for a brief trip along U.S. 1, the parallel highway that had once been the East Coast's main road:
With this comparison in mind, she said:
The Landscape-Landmark Tour left I-95 to travel to Charlottesville to visit Monticello, the well preserved home of the third President and primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. "Many times I've been here," Mrs. Johnson told her diary, "but never in this fashion, trailing forty newspaper people with heavy camera equipment, and met by the Trustees of Monticello." Participants in the Landscape-Landmark Tour enjoyed a buffet luncheon on the Terrace Promenade at Monticello, including Virginia ham, Sally Lunn bread, an oyster cooked according to Jefferson's recipe, and Crème Brûlée. Mrs. Johnson commented, "I threw discretion to the winds and ate everything."
During the ceremonial part of the visit, Mrs. Johnson donated a seedling from the South Lawn of the White House. It was from a flowering horse chestnut tree that grows on a mound President Jefferson had designed and called "The President's Park."
According to an account by Nan Robertson in The New York Times:
The group took a brief tour of the University of Virginia's Botanical Gardens before departing on Laurence Rockefeller's plane for Abingdon. They motored to the Martha Washington Inn behind two high school marching bands. A sizable crowd turned out to see the First Lady's convoy despite the rain that had caught up with them. That night, Mrs. Johnson and her companions enjoyed William Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar" at the Barter Theatre, before having dinner. As Nan. Robertson explained:
By then, Mrs. Johnson told her diary, she was "starving." She wondered:
On May 12, the Landscape-Landmark Tour visited the Blue Ridge Parkway before Secretary Udall, who had joined the tour in Charlottesville, took reporters on a climb up the last 1,500 feet of Sharp Top. The tour also visited the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild exhibit before traveling by bus to Roanoke for a flight back to Washington.
Highway Beautification Act of 1965
One of the most prominent results of the President's beauty initiative was the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. As expected, it had been controversial. When the House considered its version of the bill on October 7, the debate lasted into the early morning hours of October 8. A pointed but tongue-in-cheek amendment by Representative Robert Dole (R-Kan.) to strike out the term "Secretary of Commerce" wherever it appeared in the bill and insert the words "Lady Bird" lost by a voice vote. Representative Harold R. Gross (R-Iowa) suggested that when the bill passed, as he knew it would, the President should have his signing ceremony in front of a Texas billboard advertising the Johnson family's television station.
After the House and Senate reconciled differences between the two versions of the bill, Congress approved the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 on October 14. The signing ceremony took place at the White House on October 21, the day after the President returned from surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Recalling the ride from the hospital along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the President said, "not one foot of it was marred by a single unsightly man-made obstruction-no advertising signs, no junkyards. Well, doctors could prescribe no better medicine for me." Saying, "Beauty belongs to all the people," he signed the bill and gave the first pen to Lady Bird, along with a kiss on the cheek.
For a more detailed account of passage of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, go to http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/beauty.htm.
The billboard portion of the Act, which became Section 131 of Title 23, United States Code ("Highways"), required the States to provide effective control of outdoor advertising along the Interstate System and Federal-aid primary system highways (within 660 feet of the nearest edge of the right-of-way and visible from the main traveled way). Federal-aid apportionments could be reduced by 10 percent for States that did not do so. Some signs would be permitted, namely directional and other official signs, signs and other devices advertising activities conducted on the property on which they were located, and signs advertising the sale or lease of the property on which they were located. The Secretary was to enter into an agreement with each State regarding the size, lighting, and spacing, consistent with customary use, on control of outdoor advertising.
Signs that did not comply with the new requirement were to be removed, but not before July 1, 1970, with just compensation for those that had been erected legally before enactment of the law. The Act authorized $20 million a year for FYs 1966 and 1967 for this purpose, with the funds coming from the general Treasury, not the Highway Trust Fund, and a Federal share of 75 percent.
To promote the safety and recreational value of travel and preserve natural beauty, the 1965 Act also required effective control of the establishment of junkyards along the Interstate System and the Federal-aid primary system (Section 136 of Title 23, United States Code). Effective control meant screening by natural objects, plants, fences, or other means, with a 10-percent penalty on apportionments for States that did not comply. The Federal share of junkyard screening projects was 75 percent, again with $20 million a year (FYs 1966 and 1967) from the general Treasury.
The first billboard did not come down until April 27, 1971. The 15- x 45-foot billboard, 30 feet high, was in a pine grove off the northbound lanes of I-95 near Freeport, Maine. It was a double-faced billboard that had most recently advertised a Brunswick restaurant and a Falmouth music store. The owner of the billboard, the Donnelly Advertising Company, was paid about $1,000 for its removal.
An article in The Boston Globe explained how this billboard came to be first:
With 100 or so people on hand for the occasion, Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe explained that removal of billboards "represents the realization that the majestic vistas along our rural highways belong to the people, and it returns those vistas to the people legally through the due process of laws." He added:
Volpe climbed a stepladder as if to take the sign down himself, but instead said, "Take her down, boys," as a crane pulled the facing off the billboard. Completion of the task would take about 2 days.
The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 has been amended several times, in part to address changes in outdoor advertising. As amended, it requires us to ensure that the State transportation departments maintain "effective control of the erection and maintenance" of outdoor advertising signs along the Interstate System and the National Highway System. The law allows State and local officials to determine whether more stringent controls than those imposed by Federal law are appropriate for these routes. The result varies from State to State and even from community to community, with some States essentially banning billboards while others allow them to the maximum extent permitted under the Federal law.
For information on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, go to: http://www.wildflower.org/