The room features three large south-facing windows behind the president's desk, and a fireplace at the north end. It has four doors: the east door opens to the Rose Garden; the west door leads to a private study and dining room; the northwest door opens onto the main corridor of the West Wing; and the northeast door opens to the office of the president's secretary.
Presidents generally decorate the office to suit their personal taste, choosing new furniture, new drapery, and designing their own oval-shaped carpet to take up most of the floor. Artwork is selected from the White House's own collection, or borrowed from museums for the president's term in office.
The Oval Office has become associated in Americans' minds with the presidency itself through memorable images, such as a young John F. Kennedy, Jr. peering through the front panel of his father's desk, President Richard Nixon speaking by telephone with the Apollo 11 astronauts during their moonwalk, and daughter Amy Carter bringing her Siamese cat Misty Malarky Ying Yang to brighten President Jimmy Carter's day. Several presidents have addressed the nation from the Oval Office on occasion. Examples include Kennedy presenting news of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), Nixon announcing his resignation from office (1974), Ronald Reagan following the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster (1986), and George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11 attacks (2001).
George Washington never occupied the White House. He spent most of his presidency in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which served as the temporary nation capital for 10 years, 1790–1800, while Washington, D.C. was under construction.
In 1790, Washington built a large, two-story, semi-circular addition to the rear of the President's House in Philadelphia, creating a ceremonial space in which the public would meet the President. Standing before the three windows of this Bow Window, he formally received guests for his Tuesday afternoon levees, delegations from Congress and foreign dignitaries, and the general public at open houses on New Year's Day, the Fourth of July, and his birthday.
"Washington received his guests, standing between the windows in his back drawing-room. The company, entering a front room and passing through an unfolding door, made their salutations to the President, and turning off, stood on one side."
Architect James Hoban visited President Washington in Philadelphia in June 1792 and would have seen the Bow Window. The following month, he was named winner of the design competition for The White House.
The "elliptic salon" at the center of the White House was the outstanding feature of Hoban's original plan. An oval interior space was a Baroque concept that was adapted by Neoclassicism. Oval rooms became popular in eighteenth century neoclassical architecture.
In November 1800, John Adams became the first President to occupy the White House. He and his successor, President Thomas Jefferson, used Hoban's oval rooms in the same ceremonial manner that Washington had used the Bow Window, standing before the three windows at the south end to receive guests.
During the 19th century, a number of presidents used the White House's second-floor Yellow Oval Room as a private office or library.
The West Wing was the idea of President Theodore Roosevelt, brought about by his wife's opinion that the second floor of the White House, then shared between bedrooms and offices, should be just a domestic space. The one-story Executive Office Building was intended to be a temporary structure, for use until a permanent building was erected either on that site or elsewhere. Building it to the west of the White House allowed the removal of a vast, dilapidated set of pre-Civil War greenhouses that had been constructed by President James Buchanan. Roosevelt moved the offices of the executive branch to the newly constructed wing in 1902. His workspace was a two-room suite of Executive Office and Cabinet Room, located just west of the present Cabinet Room. The furniture, including the president's desk, was designed by architect Charles Follen McKim and executed by A. H. Davenport and Company, of Boston.
President William Howard Taft made the West Wing a permanent building, expanding it southward, doubling its size, and building the first Oval Office. Designed by Nathan C. Wyeth and completed in 1909, the office was centered on the south side of the building, much as the oval rooms in the White House are. Taft intended it to be the hub of his administration, and, by locating it in the center of the West Wing, he could be more involved with the day-to-day operation of his presidency. The Taft Oval Office had simple Georgian Revival trim, and was likely the most colorful in history; the walls were covered with vibrant seagrass green burlap.
On December 24, 1929, during President Herbert Hoover's administration, a fire severely damaged the West Wing. Hoover used this as an opportunity to create more space, excavating a partial basement for additional offices. He restored the Oval Office, upgrading the quality of trim and installing air-conditioning. He also replaced the furniture, which had undergone no major changes in twenty years.
Dissatisfied with the size and layout of the West Wing, President Franklin D. Roosevelt engaged New York architect Eric Gugler to redesign it in 1933. To create additional space without increasing the apparent size of the building, Gugler excavated a full basement, added a set of subterranean offices under the adjacent lawn, and built an unobtrusive "penthouse" story. The directive to wring the most office space out of the existing building was responsible for its narrow corridors and cramped staff offices. Gugler's most visible addition was the expansion of the building eastward for a new Cabinet Room and Oval Office.
The modern Oval Office was built at the West Wing's southeast corner, offering FDR, who was physically disabled and used a wheelchair, more privacy and easier access to the Residence. He and Gugler devised a room architecturally grander than the previous two rooms, with more robust Georgian details: doors topped with substantial pediments, bookcases set into niches, a deep bracketed cornice, and a ceiling medallion of the Presidential Seal. Rather than a chandelier or ceiling fixture, the room is illuminated by light bulbs hidden within the cornice that "wash" the ceiling in light. In small ways, hints of Art Moderne can be seen, in the sconces flanking the windows and the representation of the eagle in the ceiling medallion. FDR and Gugler worked closely together, often over breakfast, with Gugler sketching the president's ideas. One notion resulting from these sketches that has become fixed in the layout of the room's furniture, is that of two high back chairs in front of the fireplace. The public sees this most often with the president seated on the left, and a visiting head of state on the right. This allowed FDR to be seated, with his guests at the same level, de-emphasizing his inability to stand. Construction of the modern Oval Office was completed in 1934.
The basic Oval Office furnishings have been a desk in front of the three windows at the south end, a pair of chairs in front of the fireplace at the north end, a pair of sofas, and assorted tables and chairs. The Neoclassical mantel was made for the Taft Oval Office in 1909, and salvaged after the 1929 West Wing fire. A tradition of displaying potted Swedish ivy (Plectranthus verticillatus) atop the mantel goes back to the administration of John F. Kennedy, and the current plants were rooted from the original plant. A longcase clock, commonly known as the Oval Office grandfather clock, built in Boston by John and Thomas Seymour c. 1795–1805 in the federal style was purchased and has been placed next to the Northeast door of the Oval Office since1975.
The carpet of the Oval Office bears the Seal of the President. President Harry S. Truman's oval carpet was the first to incorporate the presidential seal. In Truman's carpet, the seal was represented monochromatically through varying depths of the cut pile. His carpet was used in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. In recent years most administrations have created their own rug, working with an interior designer and the Curator of the White House. As part of her overall restoration of the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy had a redecoration of the Oval Office begun on November 21, 1963, when she accompanied President John F. Kennedy on a trip to Texas. The next day, November 22, a new carpet was installed just as the Kennedys were making their way through Dallas and the President was assassinated.
Six desks have been used in the Oval Office by U.S. Presidents. The Theodore Roosevelt desk was used there by seven presidents – most recently by Dwight Eisenhower – and by Theodore Roosevelt in his non-oval office.
Equally popular is the Resolute Desk, so named because it was made from the timbers of the British frigate HMS Resolute. The ship had been frozen in Arctic ice and abandoned but was later found and freed by American seamen. It was refurbished and presented as a gift from the United States to Queen Victoria in 1856. When the ship was decommissioned from the British Navy in 1879, Queen Victoria ordered twin desks made from its timbers, keeping one and presenting the other as a gift to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered a kneehole panel with the Presidential Seal added, but work was not completed until after his 1945 death in office. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had the desk restored, and she was the first to place it in the Oval Office. Following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the desk toured the country as part of a traveling exhibit for the Kennedy Presidential Library and was then lent to the Smithsonian Institution. President Jimmy Carter brought the desk back to the Oval Office in the 1970s. Since then, Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have also used it as their Oval Office desk.
When not in use in the Oval Office, a desk is often placed in the adjacent Oval Office Study, in the White House, or is used by the vice-president.
Art may be selected from the White House collection, or may be borrowed from museums or individuals for the length of an administration.
Most presidents have hung a portrait of George Washington – usually the Rembrandt Peale "Porthole" portrait or the Charles Willson Peale three-quarter-length portrait – over the mantel at the north end of the room. A portrait of Andrew Jackson by Thomas Sully hung in Lyndon Johnson's office, and in Ronald Reagan's, George H. W. Bush's and Bill Clinton's. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln by George Henry Story hung in George W. Bush's office, and continued in Barack Obama's. Three landscapes/cityscapes by minor artists – City of Washington from Beyond the Navy Yard by George Cooke, Eastport and Passamaquoddy Bay by Victor de Grailly, and The President's House, a copy after William Henry Bartlett – have adorned the walls in multiple administrations. The Avenue in the Rain by Childe Hassam and Working on the Statue of Liberty by Norman Rockwell flanked the Resolute Desk in Bill Clinton's office, and did the same in Barack Obama's.
Statuettes, busts, heads, and figurines are frequently displayed in the Oval Office. Abraham Lincoln has been the most common subject, in works by sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Gutzon Borglum, Adolph Alexander Weinman, Leo Cherne and others. In recent administrations, traditional busts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin have given way to heads of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman or Dwight Eisenhower. Western bronzes by Frederic Remington have been frequent choices: Harry S. Truman displayed Fired On; Lyndon Johnson displayed The Bronco Buster, as did Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Presidents Reagan and Bush added its companion piece, Rattlesnake.
President Harry S. Truman displayed works related to his home state of Missouri, illustrations of biplanes, and models of jet-airplanes. He hung a large photograph of the White House portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt, under whom he had served as Vice-President, who died in office in 1945. President Dwight Eisenhower filled the office walls with landscape paintings. President John F. Kennedy surrounded himself with paintings of naval battles from the War of 1812, photographs of sailboats, and ship models. President Lyndon Johnson installed sconces on either side of the mantel, and added the office's first painting by a woman artist, Franklin D. Roosevelt by Elizabeth Shoumatoff. President Richard Nixon tried three different George Washington portraits over the mantel, and hung a copy of Earthrise – a photograph of the earth taken from the moon's orbit during the Apollo 8 mission – beside his desk. President Gerald Ford displayed tasteful, conservative works; paintings that remained mostly in place through the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. President George H. W. Bush added luminist landscapes. President Bill Clinton chose the Childe Hassam and Norman Rockwell paintings mentioned above, along with Waiting for the Hour by William T. Carlton, a genre painting showing African-Americans gathered in anticipation of the Emancipation Proclamation going into effect. President George W. Bush mixed traditional works with paintings by Texas artists and Western sculptures. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, British Prime Minister Tony Blair lent him a bust of Winston Churchill, who had guided Great Britain through World War II. President Barack Obama honored Abraham Lincoln with the portrait by Story, a bust by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. Below the proclamation was a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. by Charles Alston, and in the nearby bookcase was a program from the August 28, 1963 March on Washington, at which Dr. King gave his "I Have a Dream Speech."
A tradition evolved in the latter part of the twentieth century of each new administration redecorating the office to the President's liking. A new administration usually selects an oval carpet, new drapery, the paintings on the walls, and some furniture. Most incoming presidents continue using the rug of their predecessor until their new one is installed. The retired carpet very often is then moved to the presidential library of the president for whom it was made.
Since the present Oval Office's construction in 1934 during the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt the room has remained mostly unchanged architecturally. More than any president, FDR left an impression on the room and its use. Doors and window frames have been modified slightly. A screen door on the east wall was removed after the installation of air conditioning. President Lyndon B. Johnson's row of wire service Teletype machines on the southeast wall required cutting plaster and flooring to accommodate wiring. The Georgian style plaster ornament has been cleaned to remove accumulated paint, and a series of electrified wall sconces have come and gone.
Though some presidents have chosen to do day-to-day work in a smaller study just west of the Oval Office, most use the actual Oval Office for work and meetings. Traffic from the large numbers of staff, visitors, and pets over time takes its toll. There have been four sets of flooring in the Oval Office. The original floor was made of cork installed over soft wood; however, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was an avid golfer and damaged the floor with his golf spikes. Johnson had the floor replaced in the mid-1960s with wood-grain linoleum. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan had the floor replaced with quarter sawn oak and walnut, in a cross parquet pattern similar in design to Eric Gugler's 1933 sketch, which had never been installed. In August 2005, the floor was replaced again under President George W. Bush, in exactly the same pattern as the Reagan floor.
In the late 1980s, a comprehensive assessment of the entire house, including the Oval Office, was made as part of the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). Detailed photographs and measured drawings were made documenting the interior and exterior and showing even slight imperfections. A checklist of materials and methods was generated for future conservation and restoration.
|Major axis (north-south)||35 ft 10 in||10.9 m|
|Minor axis (east-west)||29 ft||8.8 m|
|Height||18 ft 6 in||5.6 m|
|Line of rise (the point at which the ceiling starts to arch)||16 ft 7 in||5.0 m|
|Approximate circumference||102 ft 5 in||31.2 m|
|Approximate area||816.2 sq ft||75.8 sq m|
The ratio of the major axis to the minor axis is approximately 21:17 or 1.24.
President Richard M. Nixon and Bob Hope play golf in the Oval Office, a tradition harking back to the tenure of Lyndon B. Johnson
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