“Fuck you I want my own goddamn desk.”
~Lyndon B. Johnson
Years ago, in the infancy of our existence as a website, we wrote about The White House, because what is more American than having our President live a mansion where he can get his work done while having a cheeseburger sent to his room at 3AM as he drunkenly calls the President of Greece to tell him that Ouzo sucks? But we didn’t really devote a lot of time to the actual Oval Office, where shit gets done. And when we think of the one defining feature of the Oval Office (other than the shape, smartass), we think of the desk where the President sits and, we can say this with absolute certainty, farts at least a few times a day.
The President’s desk is ornate, and “presidential” and, somewhat shockingly, usually shared. In fact, in the whole history of the White House, there have only been six desks used in the Oval Office, many shared by Presidents with very different ideologies who somehow have managed to avoid carving dicks in the wood as a gift to their successors. We’re amazed they had the restraint. We wouldn’t have. If we had to give our desk to the guy replacing us, it’d be dick central. You couldn’t find a spot on the thing that didn’t have dicks.
This article is not going to be about dicks carved into White House furniture. It is, however about…
The History of All Six Desks Ever Used in the Oval Office
The Oval Office is where the President does most of his day-to-day work in the White House, but of course the Oval Office has not always been the President’s working quarters. George Washington never lived in or worked from the White House, spending most of his time in the aptly named President’s House in Philadelphia, and while the White House had many Oval Rooms when it was first constructed, the Oval Office did not exist. Largely because the West Wing did not exist for the first hundred years or so of its existence.
Teddy Roosevelt, badass and great grandfather of our Editor-in-Chief, was the first to insist on the separation of the domestic space in the White House and the Executive space of the West Wing. He built a temporary one-story building to work out of, and when he left office Taft liked the idea so much he ran with it, doubling the building’s size and including the first Oval Office. It has been changed a few times since—President Hoover upgraded it after a fire damaged the West Wing (the White House seems to have a lot of bad luck with fires…) and FDR completely revamped it when he took office, leading to the building of what we now know as The Oval Office.
But ever since Taft, there have been Presidential Desks in the Oval Office. Starting with his very own, named for his badass predecessor.
The Theodore Roosevelt Desk
The Roosevelt desk was created in 1903, for Teddy Roosevelt, which was then used by Taft when he occupied the first ever West Wing. To describe it, we’re just gonna quote Wikipedia because we are not paid enough to actually learn about furniture design. Like, our office’s health care plan is literally a case of whiskey to drink until you feel less sick or injured. So yeah, don’t expect some in depth analysis outside of us saying that the “Theodore Roosevelt desk is a Colonial Revival-style double-pedestal desk” that is made of mahogany, with brass pulls and four drawers per side.
It was designed by Charles Follen McKim, who was in charge of the renovations to the White House made during Roosevelt’s tenure, and was used by Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover before that pesky fire messed things up in the Oval Office, leading Hoover to accept a new desk, which we’ll talk about later. You’d think that would imply that the desk was damaged beyond utility, but no, Hoover just used it as an excuse to get himself a new desk. It was stuck in storage, until Truman and Eisenhower each used it during their administrations. Truman and Eisenhower used this desk to begin a tradition that still holds true today—at the end of each President’s tenure, they sign their name on the inside of the center drawer of whatever desk they sit in. That’s kind of cool, we guess? But not as cool as “Teddy Roosevelt probably got uncomfortable random boners sitting behind this desk at some point in the course of history.”
While Eisenhower was the last President to use this desk in the Oval Office, and it currently sits in storage, he was not the last President to sit behind it. Lyndon Johnson used that desk while serving as Vice President under JFK, and Richard Nixon placed it in the Old Executive Office Building, which he liked working in more than the Oval Office. Most recently, Dick Cheney used the desk for entirety of his Vice-Presidential term. So basically the last two people to use this desk were Dicks.
The Hoover Desk
So about that fire that happened in the Oval Office. On Christmas Eve in 1929, a fire began in the attic of the West Wing. How did that happen? Was it an attempted assassination? Or was it an electrical fire? Oh, it was the latter? Okay that’s…that makes sense, just isn’t nearly as exciting. But okay. George Akerson, the first ever White House Press Secretary, managed to save the Roosevelt desk by basically draping it in a waterproof tarp, which, honestly, credit where credit’s due, if we were in a burning West House the last thing on our mind would be “SAVE THE DESK.” Anyway, when the White House was renovated, the Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturers Association gave Hoover a 17-piece office suite, with the Hoover desk as it’s centerpiece. The desk itself is 82 inches wide and 42 inches deep, designed by J. Stuart Clingman, and, again we’re going with Wikipedia’s description here, took “design cures from both Queen Anne and Colonial New England furniture styles.”
It’s made out of U.S. lumber, because U.S.A., and was only used by two Presidents—Hoover, and FDR. When FDR passed away in office, Truman immediately had the desk shipped off FDR’s Presidential Library in New York, where it remains on display to this day along with FDR’s chair and the items that were on the desk at the time of his death. Which is kind of unfair to Hoover, if you ask us. The desk is named after him, but it gets to be on display for a completely different President? Well, Hoover kind of sucked, so we guess it’s fine.
The Resolute Desk
The Resolute Desk is probably the most Presidential-looking desk, and it also has the coolest backstory. It was created from wood salvaged from the HMS Resolute, a British ship outfitted for Arctic exploration. In 1854, it was trapped in ice and abandoned by its crew, but two years later it an American whaler found it before returning the ship to Queen Victoria. In 1879, the England retired the Resolute and salvaged the ship for timber. They then took some of that wood and made the Resolute Desk. You know, hence the name. Queen Victoria in turn gave the desk to Rutherford B. Hayes as a gift of goodwill. It wasn’t initially used as an Oval Office desk, however—it spent nearly a decade hanging around in various rooms of the White House, though FDR did add the front panel with the Presidential seal so he could sit behind it without you seeing his leg braces.
It wasn’t until John F. Kennedy took office that it was put in the Oval Office after Jacqueline Kennedy saw it and thought “that would look nice in the Oval office.” It left the White House in 1963 after JFK’s assassination (it went on a traveling exhibition with the Kennedy Presidential Library, and was then put on display in the Smithsonian) but came back in 1977 at the request of Jimmy Carter, and has been the Oval Office desk for every single President other than George H.W. Bush. So this desk has been used by Carter, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Trump, and like, at least one of those guys has to have gotten naked behind it at some point (cough, Clinton, cough). That’s a pretty good run for an old British ship that’s main claim to fame was “being very good at getting stuck in ice for several years at a time.”
The Johnson Desk
After the assassination of JFK, Vice President and noted dick-shower Lyndon B. Johnson decided that the Resolute desk was too small for him, so he said “fuck it” and brought in the desk he had been using ever since he was a Senator. It has the distinction of being the only Presidential desk with a green leather top, which is less of a “distinction” and more of a “tidbit of information, sure, but who fucking cares.” It was made by the Senate woodwork shop in the early 20thcentury, which is how it ended up being given to Johnson as a Senator, and coming with him all the way to the White House. It’s arguably the least historically significant of the Oval Office desks (though we’re going to put it as the 2nd most inconsequential, behind the upcoming C&O Desk) but it does seem to fit Johnson’s personality that he’d be like “fuck this historic desk, take the desk I’ve been using and lug it into the damn Oval Office for me.”
LBJ was kind of a douche.
The Wilson Desk
The Johnson Desk was only on loan to The White House, so it left when Johnson did, eventually ending up in his Presidential Library. With the desk gone, Richard Nixon needed to find himself a desk for the Oval Office (he did most of his work at the Teddy Roosevelt Desk, just not, you know, in the Oval Office). He hilariously settled on the Wilson Desk, purchased in the late 1890s by Garret Augustus Hobart, a Vice President you almost assuredly have not heard of, and used by every Vice President in the Vice President’s Room of the Capitol between that year and 1969. Nixon discovered that Woodrow Wilson had used the desk, and decided to use it for that reason and that reason only. He even mentioned Wilson’s use of the desk in his “Silent majority” speech in 1969.
Only Wilson never used the desk, which we can’t stop laughing about. When this was discovered, it was decided that, oh, it was in fact named the Wilson Desk because it was used by Vice President Henry Wilson, who served under Grant, only that was 20 years before the desk was made. So the Wilson Desk has never been used by a person with the last name Wilson, but Nixon insisted on calling it the Wilson Desk literally hundreds of times in official speeches, which is the most Nixon thing we can think of.
Anyway, Nixon did make some adjustments to the desk, mostly through the installation about five recording devices into the desk, because Nixon gonna Nixon. When he oh so gracefully (eye roll) left office, Gerald Ford redesigned almost the entire Oval Office, but left the desk, for whatever reason. When his term ended, the desk moved back to the Vice President’s Room, where it remains to this very day.
And that leads us to our last desk of the article…
The C&O Desk
Much like the Johnson Desk, the C&O Desk is pretty boring, and also is just there because a Vice President wanted to keep their old desk. Now, George H. W. Bush used the Wilson Desk too, but the C&O Desk, commissioned by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in 1920 and given to the White House in 1975 was his main desk. When the C&O desk came to the White House it stayed in the Oval Office Study during the administrations of Ford, Carter and Reagan. It eventually ended up in the White House ‘s Vice President Office while Bush served in that capacity, and was briefly moved to the White House residence before ending up in the Oval Office because Bush “got used to it, found it comfortable [and] thought it was attractive.” To Bush’s credit, he did try out the Resolute Desk at first, but eventually moved it to the Treaty Room and went with the C&O Desk for the rest of his term.
So yeah, this is probably the least important desk to have spent time in the Oval Office. Hell, it’s not entirely clear where the desk even is anymore. At least the Johnson desk is still used by Presidents today, while this desk probably isn’t even in the White House. But we can’t stress this enough—no one knows where it is. Like, seriously, this isn’t even at the George Bush Presidential Library—they made a replica to put there. So yeah, it’s the only desk to only “serve” one term, and it may or may not have been actively tossed in the trash by Bill Clinton, who went with the Resolute upon taking office.
And there you have it. Way more words than you’d expect us to ever write about furniture. You’re welcome? Anyway, stay tuned for our next article, about every single chair that has been sat on by a President.
(No, we’re not going to actually do that.)
(Oh God, could you imagine?)