Oval Office History

Hand-tinted photo of William Howard Taft's original Oval Office
in the center of the West Wing, circa 1909 (White House Historical Association)

 

Richard Nixon greeting Elvis Presley in the Oval Office in 1970 (Nixon Library - Ollie Atkins)

Heritage

Over the decades, Americans developed a sentimental attachment to the Oval Office through memorable images. Television broadcasts from the Oval Office, such as President Reagan's speech following the Challenger explosion, would leave lasting impressions in the minds of Americans of both the office and its occupant. The photo of JFK, Jr. peeking out of the modesty panel of the Resolute desk made it famous, too.

Origin

President Clinton's Oval Office rug—digitally reconstructed
(Clinton Birthplace Museum |
designed by Kaki Hockersmith)

 

Prior to the construction of the "temporary Executive Office building" in 1902, the president worked out of the Residence, generally in what is now the Lincoln Bedroom. The first West Wing office of the president was Theodore Roosevelt's conventional rectangular room in the location of the current Roosevelt Room. This room adjoined his Cabinet Room, as the office in the mansion had and as the modern Oval Office still does. In this structure, the president's secretary (a position now called "White House chief of staff") occupied the office in the center of the building, and it had a rounded southern end (the northern end was square).

In 1909, William Howard Taft had the West Wing expanded and extensively remodeled. He relocated the chief executive's office in the middle of the south side—taking over the secretary's round-ended office—and changed its shape to a full oval, like the Blue Room in the White House, about 34 feet by 27 feet. Furnishing it were silk velvet curtains and a checkerboard floor made of mahajua wood from the Philippines. Caribou hide tacked with brass studs covered the chairs in the room. President Taft chose an olive green color scheme.

 

President Reagan's Oval Office rug—digitally reconstructed (Brumark)

For President Taft, an oval office may have symbolized his view of the modern-day president. Taft intended to be the center of his administration, and by creating the Oval Office in the center of the West Wing, he was more involved with the day-to-day operation of his presidency than were his recent predecessors.

Renovation and Expansion

When the West Wing caught fire in 1929, the original Oval Office was gutted along with most of the rest of the buildng. It was rebuilt by Hoover to the same design.

Digital rendering of President Bush's Oval Office rug
(Peter Sharkey)

 

Franklin Roosevelt chose to renovate and further expand the West Wing to accommodate additional staff in 1933. He moved the Oval Office to the southeast corner in place of the laundry drying yard. The new location had better light (with windows to the east as well as south) and provided easier travel back and forth to the Residence.

Time magazine described FDR's new office as:

Oval like the old one but, by his order, two feet wider, two feet longer. Handsomest room in the building, it is decorated with the great Presidential Seal set in the ceiling, has indirect lighting simulating daylight.

Since its completion in 1934, the modern Oval Office has changed very little except in its furnishings. Most presidents have commissioned a new rug and drapes, but two presidents chose not to change the decor: Eisenhower and Carter. Kennedy's new decor was just being installed the day he was assassinated.

Barack Obama is the first president to choose a wall color that is not a simple solid. His walls have a pattern of vertical stripes that alternate between tan and light beige.

President Decor
Taft to Hoover
(old location)
Green rug and dark green drapes with eagle valances and olive green walls
Franklin Roosevelt Blue-green rug and dark green drapes with eagle valances and gray-green walls
Harry Truman Blue-green rug and drapes with gray-green walls
Dwight Eisenhower No change
Jack Kennedy FDR's blue-green rug and drapes with off white walls
(At the time of his death, a new red rug with pale curtains were being installed by Boudin)
Lyndon Johnson Kennedy's red rug and pale curtains; then FDR's blue-green rug with Kennedy's pale curtains
Richard Nixon Navy blue rug with gold drapes
Jerry Ford Pale gold rug with blue florettes; pumpkin drapes with gold curtains
Jimmy Carter No change
Ronald Reagan No change; then (second term) pale gold rug with sunbeam design
George Bush Light blue rug with light blue drapes
Bill Clinton Navy blue rug with gold drapes
George W Bush Pale gold rug with sunbeam design (different from Reagan); antique gold drapes
Barack Obama Light beige rug with quotations on border; muted red-orange drapes; tan and light beige vertical striped walls

More Images

The office around 2006, looking south (White House Historical Association)

President Bush takes a photo of close friends in 2008 (Ruawildeone - White House)

Computer recreation of George W Bush's Oval Office (Google Sketchup - Peter Sharkey)

Computer recreation of George W Bush's Oval Office (Google Sketchup - Peter Sharkey)

The office around 2006, looking northwest (White House Historical Association)

George W Bush meeting with rock star and AIDS activist Bono in 2005 (White House - Eric Draper)

George W Bush commemorating the Americans with Disabilities Act in Oval Office in 2005 (White House - Eric Draper)

George W Bush hosting a meeting in the Oval Office decorated with the new presidential rug on December 20, 2001 (White House - Paul Morse)

George W Bush in the Oval Office, circa 2001, using the Reagan rug (White House)

George W Bush in front of the open door to the study and (at far end) dining room in 2001 (White House)

The Clinton Oval Office, circa 1996 (Clinton Library)

The Clinton Oval Office, circa 1996 (White House Historical Association)

Replica of the Clinton Oval Office at the Clinton Library (Larry Miller)

George HW Bush and members of his staff at work Oval Office, circa 1992 (White House Historical Association)

George HW Bush and members of his staff at work Oval Office, circa 1992 (Bush Library)

George HW Bush and members of his staff at work Oval Office, circa 1990 (NARA - Bush Library)

George HW Bush and members of his staff at work Oval Office, circa 1990 (NARA - Bush Library)

Ronald Reagan wraps up some business on his last day office in 1989 (Reagan Library)

Replica of the Reagan Oval Office in the Reagan Library

The Reagan Oval Office in 1981 (using the Ford-Carter decor) (Reagan Library)

Jimmy Carter meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1977 (NARA - Carter Library)

The Carter Oval Office in 1977 (Carter used Ford's final decor) (NARA - Carter Library)

Reproduction of the Ford Oval Office in the Ford Library

Gerald Ford in the Oval Office, circa 1974 (still using Nixon's decor) (Ford Library)

Richard Nixon with comedian and golf-enthusiast Bob Hope in 1973 (NARA)

Richard Nixon talking with the Apollo 11 astronauts in 1969 (NARA)

The Oval Office in 1969, with Johnson's decor and Nixon's desk (White House Historical Association)

LBJ and his staff monitor television coverage of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Johnson Library)

Replica of the Johnson Oval Office, circa 1966, in the Johnson Library (Daniel Stout)

The Johnson Oval Office in 1964, still using the red Kennedy rug (Johnson Library)

The Johnson Oval Office in 1964, temporarily using the final Kennedy rug and curtains but with
LBJ's desk—built for him by the Senate cabinet shop (White House Historical Society)

The new Kennedy Oval Office in 1963, completed while the first couple was visiting Dallas
and dismantled after the assassination, before Mrs. Kennedy returned (Kennedy Library)

The new Kennedy Oval Office in 1963; note JFK's footrest to ease his back pain (Kennedy Library)

The Oval Office in 1962, with Truman's decor and the Resolute desk (White House Historical Association)

John Kennedy in a rocking chair, around 1962 (Life)

John Kennedy in the Oval Office, 1961 (still using the Truman/Eisenhower decor) (NARA - Kennedy Library)

John Kennedy around 1961 (Life)

JFK's desk in 1961 (Kennedy Library - Cecil Staughton)

JFK's desk in 1961 (Kennedy Library - Cecil Staughton)

The Eisenhower Oval Office in 1960 (National Geographic)

The Eisenhower Oval Office, circa 1956 (Eisenhower Library)

The Eisenhower Oval Office, circa 1956 (Eisenhower Library)

The Eisenhower Oval Office, circa 1956 (Eisenhower Library)

The north view in 1950 (NARA)

The east doors to the Rose Garden, circa 1950 (Truman Library - Abbie Rowe)

The modern Oval Office in 1947, famous for Truman's "The Buck Stops Here" sign (Truman Library)

A recreation of Truman's Oval Office at the Truman Library (Truman Library)

Truman Oval Office in 1946, with Roosevelt decor (NARA)

Truman Oval Office in 1945, with portraits of FDR, Simón Bolívar, and George Washington (Truman Library)

Close-up of the Roosevelt valance, same as presidents before him, back to Taft (NARA)

Franklin Roosevelt's first modern Oval Office, circa 1936 (Library of Congress - Theodor Horydczak)

Franklin Roosevelt with secretary Missy Le Hand, circa 1935 (White House [Roosevelt Library])

Replica of FDR's Oval Office in the Roosevelt Library (Roosevelt Library)

FDR's Oval Office in 1945 (Life)

Herbert Hoover in 1932 (NARA)

Herbert Hoover in the rebuilt Oval Office in 1930 (Corbis)

Aftermath of the Christmas Eve fire in the old West Wing, 1929 (Library of Congress)

The Coolidge Oval Office in 1927 (Library of Congress - Harris & Ewing)

The Oval Office around 1925

Calvin Coolidge in 1923 (Library of Congress)

The original Oval Office in 1923 (the black crepe memorializes President Harding) (Library of Congress)

The original Oval Office circa 1923 (probably taken at the same time as the one above) (Library of Congress)

The original Oval Office circa 1921

Woodrow Wilson signs the Army & Navy bill in 1918

Woodrow Wilson at his desk, circa 1917

Hand-tinted photo of the William Howard Taft's original Oval Office
in the center of the West Wing, circa 1909 (White House Historical Association)

The original Oval Office, circa 1909

Hand-tinted photo of Theodore Roosevelt's original West Wing office in 1904 (now the Roosevelt Room),
directly adjoining his Cabinet Room (Library of Congress)

Theodore Roosevelt (at center) with his Cabinet in 1903 (Library of Congress)

The new Oval Office flooring, 2005 (Rode Bros. Flooring)

The President’s Floor

Since its original construction in 1934 under Franklin Roosevelt, there have been four floors in the Oval Office. The original floor was made of cork. However, Dwight Eisenhower was an avid golfer and destroyed the floor with his golf spikes. Lyndon Johnson had the floor replaced in the mid-1960s with wood-grain linoleum. In 1982, fed up with the linoleum floor, Ronald Reagan had the floor replaced by the same contractors who had put the floor into his ranch in California with white pine and oak in a wagon-wheel pattern. In August of 2005, the floor was replaced again under George W Bush in almost exactly the same pattern as the Reagan floor.