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 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. Paintings are 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.
Oval Office AddressesAn 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.
Washington's Bow WindowGeorge 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."The apsidal end of a room was a traditional site of honor, for a host, a potentate, or the magistrate in a basilica.
President John Adams occupied the Philadelphia mansion beginning in 1797, and used the Bow Window in the same manner as his predecessor for the first three years of his presidency.
Curved foundations of Washington's Bow Window were uncovered during a 2007 archaeological excavation of the President's House site.
White HouseThe 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.
Yellow Oval RoomDuring the 19th century, a number of presidents used the White House's second-floor Yellow Oval Room as a private office or library.
West WingThe West Wing (Executive Office Building) 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.
Taft Oval Office: 1909–33
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.
DecorationThe 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 chairs and tables. 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. The tall-case clock, commonly called a grandfather clock, was built in Boston by John Seymour, c. 1795–1805, entered the White House Collection in the 1970's, and has adorned every Oval Office since Gerald Ford's.
CarpetThe 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.
DeskSix 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.
The next most-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 later was 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 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 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 brought the desk back 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.
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.
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 continues in Barack Obama's. Three landscapes/cityscapes by minor artists – The 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 Statue of Liberty by Norman Rockwell flanked the Resolute Desk in Bill Clinton's office, and do 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. 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, his predecessor who had 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; and those paintings 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 honors Abraham Lincoln with the portrait by Story, a bust by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. Below the proclamation is a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Charles Alston, and in the nearby bookcase is a program from the August 28, 1963 March on Washington, at which Dr. King gave his "I Have a Dream Speech."
RedecorationA 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.
AlterationsSince 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-1960's 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.
ConservationIn the late 1980's 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|
- Oval Office historical photo essay
- Pictures of the Oval Office during different presidencies (1909–2005)
- Washington Post: "Inside the Real West Wing"
- Oval Office and Presidential desks
- White House Museum online tour: the Oval Office
- The Oval Office on Whitehouse.gov
- Google Sketchup 3D Model
- 2010 Oval Office Makeover
- An Office Fitted for a President – slideshow by The New York Times