The Oval Office is the official and actual workplace of the President of the United States of America. That's the short definition. In other words, it's a room. In a building. It's a nice room, to be sure, but, y'know, a room.
The problem with that description is that people have a habit as old as time of attaching mystique to places where important people spend their time, or where important things happen, or where memorable things happen, or even - in the contrary way of humans - to places they can see but not go. The Oval Office, for the overwhelming majority of humanity, is all of those things.
Even at the very beginning, the Presidency meant doing a whole lot of work. In its conceptual design, it meant a single person sitting in between and in counterbalance to two larger groups of people, as well as being responsible to an even larger group. The holder of this office was, in well-used words, always going to be busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. As a result, the habits and practices of modern Man dictated that he (so far) would need a place to work. He would also, of course, need a place to live.
The building intended to serve both purposes (known by various names, such as the Presidential Palace or the Executive Mansion) was begun with the laying of its cornerstone in 1792 by none other than George Washington. Since the process involved American contracting, of course, he didn't live to see it finished - but finished it was, standing proudly at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the festering swamp and collected villages of Washington, D.C..
In 1814, the British managed to run amok in the newly-anointed town due to the current unpleasantness and on August 24, probably frustrated at their inability to find parking, put the large luxurious building to the torch. It burned. Strongly. Unfortunately for the British, they decided to visit New Orleans to party afterwards, where a large group of men (possibly including a parking enforcer or two) defeated them soundly in battle despite the fact that a peace treaty had already been signed elsewhere. They were given a mulligan due to the slowness of communications.
In any case, the building was restored, including the President's Room - his office. This served as the official workspace of the POTUS for many years, until - in 1902 - Theodore Roosevelt decided that the White House (as it had come to be known) was getting dingy and needed letting out. He commenced renovation, and as part of that process, had constructed a 'temporary' Executive Office Building just to the west of the main house.
I'm sure you can see where this is going. It ended up being about as temporary as kudzu, and was eventually fully attached to the main building by a gallery, at which point it became known as The West Wing. Even before then, however, Roosevelt had moved his official digs over to this new structure, leaving the main building for entertaining and the Residence. In the original design of the West Wing, there was a centrally located office which had a rounded south side (although a regular rectangular north half) to house some nice windows. Surprise! It wasn't the President's office. It belonged to the President's Secretary, whose job is now known as the Chief of Staff. Teddy's office was within the building, in what is now known as the Roosevelt Room.
That lasted until 1909, when President Taft renovated the Executive Office Building (admitting that it wasn't so temporary) and, in a grand coup de main, evicted the Secretary from the big room to take as his own. In the process, he had the north side of the office rounded off to match the south side. Presto: an Oval Office! It came to be known that for quite obvious reasons, and Presidents following worked out of the room. This kept on until 1929, when the West Wing caught fire (no British miscreant parkers were sighted this time). Then-President Hoover had the wing rebuilt to the same design; but immediately after, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the wing renovated and expanded with a second story to house the larger staff that the Presidency had begun to accumulate. At this time (1933) FDR decided to move the Oval Office out of the center of the West Wing, to the southeast corner, usurping the Laundry drying yard. This served two purposes- the new location was more conveniently located, having connections to a larger number of rooms; it was also much easier for FDR's wheelchair to access, and it allowed for more windows around the southeast wall. Okay, three reasons. At least.
The Oval Office has remained there ever since.
The decor of the Oval Office is, by tradition, the choice of the sitting president. The White House maintains a large collection of furniture, much of it of historical value and interest, from which the President is able to choose furnishings. Nearly all presidents since FDR (save two, Eisenhower and Carter) have also commissioned an oval carpet for the office, using their predecessor's until their own is ready. Used carpets (if not retained by the next holder of the office) tend to go to the presidential Library of their first user. If you think I seem to be going on about the carpet, well, I'm not alone.
Wall color, drapes, all can be specified by the office holder (I wish my job was like that). The floor was originally made from cork; however, Ike apparently liked to golf quite a bit and reportedly trashed it. Whether from putting, practice swings or from spiked golf shoes, I have no idea - possibly all three. I'll guess the shoes, which would harm it even through the rug. It was replaced by Lyndon Johnson with - are you sitting down? - wood-grain linoleum. Guh. It remained such until that paragon of taste Ronald Reagan, reportedly disgusted, had it replaced by a contractor who had floored his California ranch. He installed a pattern of white pine and oak, which lasted until George W. Bush had the pattern replaced with a similar one, although I'm not sure if the floor needed it or if so why.
In addition to the furniture, the White House maintains a collection of fine art from which the President may choose pieces to display. If that isn't a sufficient selection, the White House has often borrowed art from other institutions for display in the Oval Office - Government museums such as the Smithsonian or the National Gallery of Art contribute as well.
Probably the most famous piece of furniture or art in the Oval Office is the Resolute desk. It was made famous in modern American culture by Stanley Tretick's picture of JFK Jr. peeking out from the modesty panel of the desk's footwell while his father John F. Kennedy sat at the desk, weeks before his assassination in 1963. This desk was made from planks taken from the decommissioned British Survey ship HMS Resolute. This ship, abandoned by its crew in the Arctic in 1855 was discovered empty by Americans in 1856 and returned to England as a good-will gesture. It was decommissioned in 1879, and Queen Victoria presented the desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. Every president since then, save four, have used the desk - either in the Oval Office or in their private study in the Residence. The modesty panel from behind which JFK Jr. was peeking was installed at the request of FDR, who disliked visitors looking at (or probably, trying not to look at) his leg braces.
In addition to the desk there is a pair of rosewood chairs which flank it with their backs to the room. There since FDR's time, they were used by secretaries taking dictation. Since the office's inception, there have been a pair of flags behind the desk - a large American flag, and a large flag with the Presidential seal on it.
The Oval Office is, of course, more than just a room. It is, today, the symbol of the American Presidency. The introduction of mass media in the form of newspapers with photographs, and magazines, began the long process of imprinting the Oval Office on the minds of the world. Television drove home its symbolism, as Americans (and others around the world) came to watch the President at memorable times framed in the increasingly familiar room.
Television, especially, cemented the Oval Office with history. Presidents since Truman have chosen to address the American people (and the world) at significant moments from the Oval Office on film and video. As a result, many people's memory of events that occurred but which they were not personally witness to are linked strongly to images of the room.
Although the room itself has been known as the Oval Office since its early construction, the phrase itself was first used to mean "the President" during the administration of Richard Nixon, when memoranda, communiques and instructions were tagged 'From the Oval Office' to indicate that they had come from the President.
Trivia (well, okay, more trivial trivia)
The first phone was installed by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1879. It didn't have a dial. In fact, it could only reach one phone at the other end of the cable, at the Treasury.
Up through the Presidency of Calvin Coolidge, any American who wished to discuss matters with the President could make an appointment.
Pictures taken in 1950 were used to create the Oval Office replica for President Truman's Presidential Library. There was an ear of corn resting atop the television in the Oval Office. Although no-one currently knows why it was there, it is faithfully reproduced in the office replica. This was also the first television in the Oval Office.
Lyndon Johnson had a stock ticker, three televisions and a Fresca soda fountain in the Oval Office, precursor to the modern infoaddict geek.
During World War II, the windows were modified with bulletproof glass and steel window frames and sashes.
Other than laptops or machines brought in for briefings, there has not (yet) been a computer installed in the Oval Office.
- Major axis (north-south): 35' 10" / 10.9 m
- Minor axis (east-west): 29' / 8.8 m
- Height: 18' 6" / 5.6 m
- Approx. Elliptical Circumference: 102' 5" / 31.2 m
- Approx. Area: 816.2 sq. ft / 75.8 sq m
The White House Museum website
The White House official web site
The Resolute Group webpage
The Brookings Institute
The White House Historical Association