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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 smaller 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 change 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. Paintings are selected from the White House’s own collection, or borrowed from other 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.
An Oval Office Address, the television broadcast of a formal presidential speech from the office, is rare and reserved for occasions with a sense of gravity, as when President Kennedy presented news of the Cuban Missile Crisis, or President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation following the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, or President George W. Bush addressed the nation on the evening of September 11, 2001.
George Washington never occupied the White House. He spent most of his presidency in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which served as the temporary national 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 conception of President Theodore Roosevelt, brought about by his wife's idea that the second floor of the White House, then shared between bedrooms and offices, should just be a domestic space. Further, Roosevelt's proposed addition of offices and meeting rooms would enable him to demolish a 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 own working office was rectangular in shape, located just west of the present Cabinet Room.
President William Howard Taft built the West Wing's first Oval Office. Designed by Nathan C. Wyeth and completed in 1909, it 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 center 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 in a vibrant seagrass green.
On December 24, 1929, during President Herbert Hoover's administration, a fire damaged the West Wing, requiring substantial rebuilding. Hoover rebuilt the Oval Office in the same location, upgrading the quality of trim and having the first air conditioning installed.
Dissatisfied with the size and layout of the West Wing, President Franklin D. Roosevelt engaged a staff architect, Eric Gugler, to redesign it in 1933. 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 pediment hoods, bookcases set into niches, a deep bracketed crown molding, and a ceiling medallion of the Presidential Seal. In small ways, hints of Art Moderne can be seen, especially in 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 on his own accord. Construction of the modern Oval Office was completed in 1934.
Most recent presidents have hung a portrait of George Washington over the mantel on the north end of the room. 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 series of bronze sculptures of horses and Western themes by Frederic Remington are often displayed in the room. A large tall-case clock, commonly called a grandfather clock, built in Boston by John and Thomas Seymour, c. 1795-1805, stands in the northeast portion of the room.
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.
Many presidents have used a large partners' desk called the Resolute Desk, so named because it was made from the timbers of the British frigate HMS Resolute. The ship was frozen in Arctic ice and abandoned, but later found and freed by American seamen. It was refurbished and presented as a gift from the United States to Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom in 1856. When the British ship was decommissioned 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.
A number of presidents used it as their private office desk in the Yellow Oval Room and elsewhere. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the 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 was the first to place it in the Oval Office. Following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it toured the country as part of a traveling exhibit for the Kennedy Presidential Library, and then was lent to the Smithsonian Institution. President Jimmy Carter returned the desk to the Oval Office in the 1970s. Since then, Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have also used it as their Oval Office desk.
The Resolute Desk is one of five desks ever used in the Oval Office.
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.
The redecoration of the Oval Office is usually coordinated by the First Lady's office in the East Wing, working with an interior designer and the White House Curator. Art may be selected from the White House collection, or may be borrowed for the length of an administration. President Bill Clinton borrowed a bronze sculpture of The Thinker by Auguste Rodin from a museum. President George W. Bush borrowed two oil paintings, A Charge to Keep by W. H. D. Koerner (owned by Bush), and Rio Grande by Tom Lea (on loan from the El Paso Museum of Art).
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. During the Cold War, window panes were outfitted with small vibrators when it was learned that the Soviets had developed a means of reading the effect of voice sound waves on glass panes. 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 white pine and oak 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 nearly the same pattern as the Reagan floor, but replacing the soft white pine with walnut.
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 Building 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' 10"||10.9 m|
|Minor axis (east-west)||29'||8.8 m|
|Height||18' 6"||5.6 m|
|Line of rise (the point at which the ceiling starts to arch)||16' 7"||5.0 m|
|Approximate Oval Circumference||102' 5"||31.2 m|
|Approximate Area||816.2 sq ft||75.8 sq m|
The ratio of the major axis to the minor axis is 10.9/8.8 (i.e. about 1.24).
President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, October 20, 2009.
One of many hand-shake photos in front of the fireplace. The President sitting to the viewer's right, the guest to the left. One of the rare images where there is fire in the fireplace (March 2003, the guest is Paul Kagame.)
The Oval Office in 1999, during the administration of Bill Clinton. President Clinton's office was designed by Arkansan Kaki Hockersmith, who used a vibrant color palette of cream, gold, crimson and sapphire blue.
A replica of the Oval Office is located in Corona, California. It is part of the Quality West Wing Foundation, an education center for students to learn more about U.S. History, government and the presidency.
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