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The Six Desks of The Oval Office

02 17 22
Jonathan Bender

When you start a new job, the first thing you might think about is where are you going to sit. It turns out presidents are the same.

There have been only six desks in the 113 years that a president has worked in the Oval Office. Each desk was designed with a specific purpose, a reflection of the style and moment in history that they were made.

This is how each piece arrived at the White House.


Let’s go back to 1909. Cars raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time. Alice Huyler Ramsey became the first woman to drive across the United States (It took 59 days.). The Manhattan Bridge opened on the very last day of the year.

In October of 1909, President William Howard Taft began working in a newly built spot in The White House called the “President’s Office.” What we know as the Oval Office today was painted olive green and had chairs covered in caribou hide held in place by brass tacks.

In the center of the office was the Theodore Roosevelt Desk (named for and used by Taft’s predecessor), a pedestal desk created by Charles Follen McKim, one of the partners in McKim, Mead & White — the designers of the original West Wing. The mahogany desk was more than 7 feet wide, a stolid rectangle softened by rounded corners and semi-circular brass pulls.

 

The Roosevelt Desk used by President Truman


The Roosevelt Desk replica in the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum

Charles Follen McKim

 

Four presidents would sit behind the Roosevelt Desk until a fire swept through the West Wing and destroyed the original Oval Office in 1929. The desk was saved; but placed in storage for the next 15 years.

A new desk — the Hoover Desk — arrived in the rebuilt Oval Office in 1930. It was a gift from the then “Furniture Capital of the World,” and the Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturer’s Association. The walnut desk with clean art deco lines (part of a 17-piece set) was envisioned by J. Stuart Clingman, a designer with the renowned furniture maker John Widdicomb Co.

 

J. Stuart Clingman

 

While President Herbert Hoover used the desk — it was the first Oval Office desk to hold a working telephone — its place in history was cemented by a few strokes of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s pen. In December of 1941, FDR sat behind the Hoover Desk as he signed declarations of war against Germany and Japan as the United States entered World War II.

 

The Hoover Desk in a recreation of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Oval Office at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

 

In 1945, the Theodore Roosevelt Desk returned to the Oval Office with President Harry Truman. It remained there for 18 years until First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy discovered the Resolute Desk in a White House broadcasting room (President Dwight D. Eisenhower had sat behind it when he addressed the nation on television.)

Now when you close your eyes and picture the Oval Office, it is likely the Resolute Desk you see. The sturdy, two-pillar desk is immortalized in the candid picture where John F. Kennedy Jr. peeks out from underneath the desk as his father works above him. It’s even got a cameo in National Treasure: Book of Secrets.

The Resolute Desk was built from the oak timbers of a sunken British ship, the HMS Resolute, a gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes. It was constructed in the traditional style of a partner’s desk, wide enough to let two people work across from each other. The back opening to the desk was modified by FDR, who commissioned a swinging panel featuring the President’s Seal to bridge the gap between the two pillars. That panel was completed and installed after FDR’s death.  

The Resolute, or “Hayes,” Desk is the only Oval Office desk to go on tour. After President Kennedy’s assassination, it was part of a traveling exhibit to raise funds for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.  

 

The Resolute desk in William Howard Taft's Presidential Study before the kneehole panel was added.

H.M.S Resolute and Intrepid winter Quarters, Melville Island, 1852-53

The Resolute Desk in the Broadcast Room on the ground floor at the White House, October 6, 1952.

 

As the Resolute Desk toured the nation in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson began an unofficial tradition by taking the desk he had used as vice president with him to the Oval Office. While the Johnson Desk was only used for six years, its history goes back much longer.

Cabinetmaker Thomas D. Waldeton designed the two-pillar mahogany desk with ornate carved flowers in the corners and circular bun feet. It was built by S. Karpen and Bros, a Chicago-based furniture company, in 1909, the same year the Oval Office was first used. The Johnson Desk (original price tag: $80) was part of 125 sets used in senators’ offices, which is where LBJ first sat behind the green leather-topped desk.

By this point in time, the desks of the Oval Office had taken on an aura of their own. And the desk they picked became a point of pride for a number of incoming presidents.

 

The Johnson Desk in the replica Oval Office at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.

 

President Richard Nixon selected the Wilson Desk as his workspace because he believed that it was used by President Woodrow Wilson (who had actually used the Roosevelt Desk). The desk had actually been used by 15 different vice presidents and was Nixon’s desk before he was elected to serve as the 37th President.

The Wilson Desk is a mahogany, two-pedestal desk (noticing a trend, yet?) with a set of drawers in each pillar. And yes, this is the desk where President Nixon had the Secret Service install hidden microphones, which would record conversations at the center of the Watergate scandal. The desk, sans microphones, would be used by President Gerald Ford before being returned to the Vice President’s office in the Capitol Building.

 

The Wilson Desk in the Vice President's Room of the United States Capitol in 1920.

The Wilson Desk replica in the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

 

The Resolute Desk was brought back by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. It’s been in place ever since, with the exception of President George H.W. Bush’s term between 1989 and 1993.

The last vice president’s desk to get a call up to the big leagues was the C&O Desk. This was President George H.W. Bush’s desk, although it was originally built for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway before being donated to the White House.

 

The C&O Desk, Oval Office, George H.W. Bush Administration.

 

The walnut partners’ desk is an homage to 18th century English furniture-making with a maple top and bracket feet. Muted gold handles are on the tiered drawers that line both pedestals.

President Bill Clinton opted to bring back the Resolute Desk and the four presidents after him have all kept it in place. An oak desk made with timber rescued from Arctic ice where they have witnessed and made history.

 

 

 

1. Jules Cambon, signing the Treaty of Paris on behalf of Spain in 1899 at the Resolute desk during William McKinley's presidency, p. 431 of Harper's Pictorial History of the War with Spain, Vol. II, published by Harper and Brothers in 1899; 2. Abbie Rowe, 1905-1967, Photographer, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Office of Presidential Libraries; 3. Jason D. Smith, 2011, CC BY 2.0; 4. Portrait of American architect Charles Follen McKim by Frances Benjamin Johnston, between 1890 and 1909,The Johnston (Frances Benjamin) collection at the Library of Congress;
5. J. Stuart Clingman, Designer For John Widdicomb Co., Grand Rapids Public Museum; 6. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum;
7. Abbie Rowe, National Park Service, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum; 8. Harris & Ewing, photographer, Library of Congress; 9. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London; 10. Michael Barera, 2017, CC BY-SA 4.0; 11. Jeremy Thompson, 2016, CC BY 2.0; 12. Library of Congress; 13. Records of the White House Photograph Office, 1/20/1989 - 1/20/1993.

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