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White House Life: Now and Then

Life in the Press Briefing Room
Art and Furnishings

President Woodrow Wilson made the first transcontinental phone call from the Oval Office on January 25, 1915.





Symbolizing the Presidency
Life in the Oval Office

On an early October morning in 1909, President William Howard Taft became the first President to walk into the Oval Office. Greeting the 27th President of the United States 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 the olive green color scheme.

The Oval Office was different from the office of President Theodore Roosevelt, who built the West Wing in 1902. Roosevelt's office was rectangular. Taft relocated the office and changed its shape to oval, like the Blue Room in the White House.

Preferences for oval rooms date to the time of George Washington. At the president's home in Philadelphia, Washington had two rooms modified with a bowed-end in each that were used for hosting formal receptions called levees. As his guests formed a circle around him, Washington would stand in the center to greet them. With no one standing at the head or foot of the room, everyone was an equal distance from the president. The circle became a symbol of democracy, and Washington likely envisioned the oval Blue Room as the ideal place to host a levee.

For President Taft, the 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.

What President Taft could not imagine in 1909 when he built the Oval Office was that the office itself would become a symbol of the Presidency. Over the years Americans developed a sentimental attachment to the Oval Office through memorable images, such as John Kennedy, Jr. peering through the front panel of his father's desk or President Nixon talking on the phone with astronauts after a successful voyage. Television broadcasts, 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 Oval Office became a symbol of strength and reassurance the evening of September 11, 2001, when President George W. Bush delivered comforting words through a televised address from the Oval Office. Less than six months later, President George W. Bush welcomed Afghan Interim Authority Hamid Karzai to the Oval Office. The meeting was a sign of significant progress in the war on terrorism.

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