Oval Office Decor Through The Decades: All the Presidents' Desks
Eighteen U.S. presidents have conducted business in the Oval Office since it was first constructed in 1909, but in all that time, only six desks have been used. Here are the stories behind those desks—and some of the historic events that happened behind them.
1. THE RESOLUTE DESK
In 1852, a Royal Navy vessel called the HMS Resolute was sent to look for John Franklin’s North West Passage expedition, which left in 1845 and hadn’t been heard from since. The Resolute became stuck in an ice floe in 1854, but the men aboard were able to safely abandon it. In 1855, the captain of an American whaling ship discovered the Resolute, about 1200 miles from where the crew had left it.
Congress purchased the ship, then had it refurbished and returned to Queen Victoria as a token of goodwill and friendship. The Queen put the Resolute back into service, but when the ship was retired in 1879, she had three desks made from its timbers. One was given to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 “as a memorial of the courtesy and loving kindness which dictated the offer of the gift of the Resolute,” according to the plaque on the front of the desk.
Nearly every U.S. president since Hayes has opted to use the desk, whether in the private residence or in the Oval Office. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s President's Study desk—he requested the addition of a front panel bearing the presidential seal to conceal his legs. You can see the panel in the famous picture above, showing John F. Kennedy, Jr., peeking out from behind it.
Jimmy Carter also used the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, as did Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Barack Obama continues to use it today, and in 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown presented Obama with a pen holder made from the Resolute’s sister ship, the HMS Gannet.
2. THE ROOSEVELT DESK
Teddy Roosevelt commissioned this mahogany desk during his presidency. Taft used it after him, as did Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt (some presidents used more than one desk), Eisenhower, and Nixon. Nixon preferred to conduct business not in the Oval Office, however, but in the nearby Old Executive Office Building. Former Nixon staff member Stephen Hess suggests this was one of the desks Nixon had altered to conceal recorders that caused the Watergate scandal.
3. THE WILSON DESK
Though Nixon used the Roosevelt Desk in his working office, he kept the Wilson Desk in the Oval Office—and also had it wired to record conversations. He referred to the desk in his famous “Silent majority” speech, saying, “Fifty years ago, in this room and at this very desk, President Woodrow Wilson spoke words which caught the imagination of a war-weary world."
Except... it wasn’t Woodrow Wilson’s. A researcher at the White House discovered that the desk actually belonged to Henry Wilson, Ulysses S. Grant’s vice president. It fell to one of Nixon’s speechwriters, William Safire, to tell the president about the error. Safire wrote a memo in which he also extolled all of the virtues of Vice President Henry Wilson. Nixon never mentioned the memo.
The thing is, though, it probably wasn’t Henry Wilson’s desk, either. White House records [PDF] show that the desk was purchased by Garret Hobart during his brief stint as William McKinley’s vice president from 1897 to 1899. Henry Wilson died in 1875.
4. THE HOOVER DESK
On Christmas Eve of 1929, a fire swept through the West Wing of the White House, damaging President Herbert Hoover’s desk, among other things. The Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturer’s Association offered to make him a new one, and in 1930, the Hoover Desk was installed in the Oval Office.
FDR used it during his tenure. In fact, he was sitting at it when he signed the act creating the Tennessee Valley Authority, the GI Bill, and the declarations of war with Japan and Germany—but perhaps because of Herbert Hoover’s reputation as one of our less beloved presidents, the Hoover Desk hasn’t gotten much love since.
5. THE JOHNSON DESK
Lyndon B. Johnson chose to bring in a desk that no president had used before, and picked this mahogany desk built by Senate cabinetmakers sometime between 1906 and 1926. The desk is now featured in the Oval Office exhibit at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.
6. THE C&O DESK
Created for the owners of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Co. in 1920, George H.W. Bush was particularly attached to this desk. He had used it during his tenure as vice president, and had it brought over to become his Oval Office desk when he became president. The move apparently ruffled a few feathers—people wondered if there was a political motive for replacing the Resolute desk that had become so associated with Kennedy. Bush’s press secretary eventually had to make a statement on the desk, saying, “He had it as vice president, and he got used to it, found it comfortable, thought it was attractive.”