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The presidential desk: A brief history

A look at the Resolute Desk, an icon of the American presidency

In art and in news media, there hasn’t been a president, real or pretend, who hasn’t been seen sitting behind the Resolute Desk—an 1880 gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes—looking stern or pensive or accomplished, depending, of course, on the moment. But the idea that the president has a desk and that desk is the president’s desk, though, is a relatively new one: Plenty of nineteenth-century Commanders in Chief brought furniture from elsewhere, while others oversaw White House redecorations that included custom furniture, which itself would be modified by later administrations.

The Resolute, too, was altered by a president, but it has become so ingrained in the national consciousness as the Place Where the President Sits that it is virtually impossible to imagine a future U.S. head of state making changes to its structure or appearance—and equally impossible to imagine one choosing to sit anywhere else.

In 1852, the HMS (Her Majesty’s Ship) Resolute, sailing at the behest of Queen Victoria, set out for the Arctic on a rescue mission but soon ran into trouble of its own. It was rescued by an American ship captained by James Buddington, a Connecticut whaler, that happened upon the Resolute, bringing both crew and ship back to the United States.

This all happened at an especially tense moment in U.S.–U.K. relations: President Franklin Pierce was ready, if necessary, to go to what would be a third war with Britain. As an act of goodwill meant to defuse tensions between the nations, Congress hatched a plan to restore the HMS Resolute and send it back to Queen Victoria.

The plan worked. In 1879, when Resolute was taken out of commission, the Queen proposed the hull of the ship be fashioned into twin desks, one for each country. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper carried an account of the desk’s design:

The design for the secretaire is the work of a working-joiner employed at the dockyard at Chatham, England, where the Resolute was dismantled. It’s topped with bordered and embossed morocco, a thin, flexible leather. The front panels contained carved medallion portraits of Her Majesty and the President of the United States; the side panels, Arctic subjects, also in relief; and the space at the back of the table, corresponding with the front panels, is furnished with a set of six drawers on either side, the handles of which are formed by two hands—male and female—grasping each other, symbolic of the goodwill existing between the heads of the two countries. The top cornices of the eight corner pedestals featured carved representations of the Arctic and Antarctic circles and the American and English flags crossed, while busts of celebrated arctic explorers support the cornices.

A hit with President Rutherford B. Hayes, the desk’s grand and imposing style seemed essentially presidential, and while it was favored by leaders of the late 19th century, it was far from the permanent fixture it is today.

In early 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt, his wife, and their six children found their new quarters on Pennsylvania Avenue cramped and dreary. The White House was filled with the detritus of previous presidents, and Roosevelt—in many ways the archetype of the New American Man—thought it time that the president’s house reflected both the president’s life and the legacy of the job.

He hired architect Charles McKim to oversee a restoration that would open up space in the building and strip away its Victorian-era eclecticism in favor of a neo-Federalist style that harkened back to the republic’s early days. The renovations would top out at a cost of $2 million dollars (more than $50 million today), which included furnishings designed by McKim and manufactured by the Boston, Massachusetts-based A. H. Davenport and Company.

The desk McKim designed for Roosevelt (which First Lady Edith called “ugly and inconvenient”) was a handsome mahogany pedestal-style desk with brass pulls, and suited Roosevelt immensely—elegant, masculine, and not too showy. It sat in the Executive Office in the newly-constructed West Wing throughout Roosevelt’s presidency, and when his successor, William Howard Taft, built the first iteration of the Oval Office, it went with him and was used by presidents Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover.

A fire damaged much of the West Wing in 1929, and while the desk was unharmed, it didn’t find an admirer in Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who promptly had it put into storage before being recovered by Harry Truman, whose folksy persona led him to put a large “The Buck Stops Here” nameplate on the top of the desk.

It made periodic appearances in both the Oval and private offices of 20th century presidents, at one point serving then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson after Jackie Kennedy had the Resolute moved back into the Oval Office. Its next user was Richard Nixon, who kept it in the old Executive Office Building and used it, historians think, to record the infamous Watergate tapes that would be his downfall.

As post-Nixon presidents favored the grander Resolute, the Roosevelt desk found a home in the Vice President’s office: its most recent occupant was Dick Cheney, who, quite fond of the desk, signed his name in one of the drawers before leaving office.

The Resolute we know now was influenced by two people: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, eager to hide his leg braces, had a door fashioned in the front of the desk, bringing the two sides together to form one imposing expanse of wood.

The second important figure in Resolute’s history was First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who in 1961 had the desk once more installed in the Oval Office just in time for a televised special presenting to the nation her restoration of the White House. Nearly 80 million people saw the desk for the first time, and for many of them the desk became inextricably linked to the men who sat behind it.

Still, the desk was occasionally moved into different White House offices as presidents expressed personal preferences, and while some chose to work at the Roosevelt desk, some made different choices. Lyndon Johnson, who’d used the Roosevelt desk as Vice President, found Resolute uncomfortable and so had made a desk topped with green leather—the only time a leather-topped desk, so common in upscale offices, made its way into the White House. George H.W. Bush worked at what’s called the C&O Desk, donated to him by that railroad company, but he was a one-term president and it was a one-term desk, Bill Clinton choosing to return Resolute to the Oval Office.

“Why does it matter what desk the president sits behind” is a question not without merit—but it does, in fact, matter: In 2016 to be ‘presidential’ isn’t just to act the part, it’s to look the part, and that comes with making design choices meant to evoke tradition, security, and even nationalism.

What better way to say ‘I am the president’ than to sit at a piece of furniture we, through television shows, movies, and photo ops think of as the place where the president signs bills into laws, meets with Cabinet members, and answers late-night emergency phone calls about war and/or alien invasion?

In theory Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would be free, as every president technically is, to style the Oval Office in any way they choose, but it’s almost certain that the buck, as Harry Truman would say, will stop at Resolute.