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What Is the Oval Office?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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The Oval Office is the formal office of the President of the United States, and many Presidents have used it as a workspace as well. Since the Oval Office is so intimately linked with the President, the term is sometimes used to refer to the Presidential administration; a news broadcast, for example, may refer to a “decision from the Oval Office” when they really mean a decision from the President. Many people are familiar with the Oval Office, since it serves as the backdrop for many Presidential speeches to the nation.

As the name suggests, the Oval Office is, in fact, oval in shape. It is located in the Southeast corner of the West Wing of the White House, the official residence and workplace of the President. Just outside the Oval Office lies the Rose Garden, another popular speech and entertainment sight which dates back to 1913. The Oval Office has actually moved through several locations; the current location was established in 1934.

A large bay window lines one side of the Oval Office, filling the office with light and a view of the elegant Rose Garden. One of the doors of the office leads out into the garden, while three other doors lead to the President's private office, a secretary's office, and the main corridor of the West Wing. The Oval Office also has a large fireplace, and by tradition, incoming Presidents decorate the Oval Office to taste.

oval office

Some decorations don't change. The Seal of the President, for example, can be found on the ceiling of the Oval Office. The floor is also rarely changed, with Presidents only replacing it when it shows serious signs of wear. Most Presidents also retain the Resolute Desk, a desk presented to the United States by Queen Victoria in 1880. The desk is made from the timbers of the H.M.S. Resolute, a British ship which was abandoned and later returned to the United Kingdom as a gesture of goodwill. When the ship was decommissioned, the Queen ordered a desk from its timbers as a gift to President Hayes.

The President of the United States often entertains visitors in the Oval Office, and it serves as a symbolic seat of power where bills are signed, treaties are negotiated, and other serious discussions are had. Many Presidents, along with their families and pets, have been photographed in the Oval Office, along with foreign dignitaries and important political and social figures.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Sinbad — On Sep 24, 2011

@Tomslav - As far as I know, there are no public tours of the West Wing and all those uber historical places such as the Oval Office and Cabinet Room. So I guess that leaves only one option - go get yourself elected to an office and the next thing you know you might just be doing business in the Oval Office.

And as @speechie wondered about the decorations in the Oval Office, it seems the President does put a personal spin on items in the Oval Office. The reason I know this is I happen to hear something about it on the news.

In fact I think the reason they were talking about it was that they wanted the public to know that the past Presidents had bought the decorative items via other sources and not taxpayer's money, and mentioned that in the George W Bush Oval Office their was a tasteful sunburst designed by the First Lady.

By Speechie — On Sep 23, 2011

@Tomislav - I actually know who designed the Oval Office, it was an architect named Nathan C. Wyeth. Sadly, that is all I know about the architect - no fun stories here.

But I do know that Wyeth's design was in a fire and was rebuilt by good ol' President Hoover.

Luckily we have not had any Oval Office fires since then. I noticed that the article noted that some decorations don't change. Does that mean that each President does bring their own decor taste and items into the Oval Office?

By Tomislav — On Sep 22, 2011

Wow, what a room with such history. I am curious if anyone can visit and take a tour of the presidential oval office.

And in learning about the oval office actually being oval, it made me curious about who designed the White House and the Oval Office.

I personally have been to Washington D.C. but my friend and I were trying to cram all of the sight-seeing in one day. And it was incredible, my favorite was the larger than life Abraham Lincoln statue, and the most memorable was the Holocaust Museum.

By sunnySkys — On Sep 21, 2011

@indemnifyme - The Resolute Desk does sound pretty cool. I personally think it's kind of a symbol of the relationship between Britain and the United States.

I think it's kind of interesting the Oval Office is, well, oval. I mean people don't traditionally design offices so they're oval shaped usually. I know every single office I've worked in has been pretty square shaped. I wonder if the President feels weird working in there at first. I think I would for sure.

By indemnifyme — On Sep 20, 2011

I had no idea the desk in the Oval Office was made from timber from a British ship. Sorry if I sound like I'm gushing, but that is just so cool!

I love when furniture has some kind of history. Imagine being the President and sitting at that desk every single day. I feel like I would feel more official if I had a desk that was called the "Resolute Desk." Unfortunately, I do most of my work from an Ikea desk. Maybe if I ever get rich I can afford something as cool as the President's desk.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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