By Herman Eberhardt, Supervisory Museum Curator
Visitors to the Roosevelt Library often ask me what I think is the most important artifact in the Museum. Since the Museum collection includes over 34,000 objects, that would seem to be a difficult question to answer. The collection covers a broad spectrum of artifacts, ranging from clothing, personal items, furniture, and art owned by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, to political memorabilia, New Deal art, and gifts given to the president by foreign governments and everyday Americans. Finally, there are the personal collections assembled by FDR—most notably his extensive collection of paintings, drawings, manuscripts, ship models, and ephemera related to naval and maritime history.
One could make an argument for many different objects in this large and diverse collection, but I believe the most important is President Roosevelt’s Oval Office desk.
The Roosevelt Library is one of only two presidential libraries that have the actual desk used by the president in the Oval Office (the other is the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas).
Here you see FDR seated at that historic desk and (below) the same desk on display in the Museum today. FDR used this historic desk in the Oval Office throughout the 12 years of his presidency.
Given its importance and popularity with our visitors, we display the desk (along with the chair FDR used at the desk) inside a giant glass enclosure in a special room in the Museum. The enclosure gives you an opportunity to get very close to the desk and examine the many personal items President Roosevelt kept on it.
Now some of you might be thinking: “That doesn’t look like the Oval Office desk.” Indeed, when most people think of the Oval Office, they have an image of a very different desk.
Most likely they are thinking of this desk—the so-called Resolute Desk. The Resolute Desk has been at the White House since 1880, when it was given to President Rutherford B. Hayes by Great Britain’s Queen Victoria. However, the Resolute Desk was never used in the Oval Office until President John F. Kennedy placed it there in 1961. Every president since Jimmy Carter (except for George H.W. Bush) has used the Resolute Desk in the office. Consequently, many people believe this is the one and only Oval Office desk.
However, the history of Oval Office desks is more complicated than that.
The very first Oval Office desk is the one depicted in this early twentieth century postcard. This desk was placed there when the Oval Office was created in 1909. Every president from William Howard Taft to Herbert Hoover used this desk in the room.
Then, in December 1929, during Mr. Hoover’s presidency, a fire severely damaged the West Wing of the White House, including the Oval Office. The President’s desk survived the fire, but when the West Wing was repaired in 1930 a new suite of furniture was installed in the Oval Office. This furniture was a gift from the Grand Rapids [Michigan] Furniture Manufacturer’s Association. It included a new Oval Office desk—designed by J. Stuart Clingman and built by the Robert W. Irwin Company of Grand Rapids.
This handsome desk was built entirely of American wood with a Michigan maple veneer. When President Hoover returned to the renovated Oval Office in April 1930, he used this desk.
Two years later, Hoover was defeated in his reelection bid by Franklin Roosevelt. When FDR took office, he adopted the Oval Office desk and chair used by his predecessor.
FDR continued to use this desk and chair throughout the 12 years he served as President.
At this historic desk he signed many of the most important laws of the New Deal, including the act creating the Tennessee Valley Authority. Here he also signed the declarations of war with Japan and Germany, the GI Bill, and other landmark legislation.
The desk was also a place where FDR reviewed reports and memoranda and met with advisers, visiting groups, and national and world leaders.
The President also conducted hundreds of press conferences at the desk. During his administration, press conferences were held regularly in the Oval Office. Reporters would pack into the room and the President would sit behind his desk and field questions.
In this photo FDR is joined by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as they conduct a joint press conference in December 1941. As you can see, one of the reporters is even using the desk as he writes down his notes.
Now, how is it that this desk and chair—used by two presidents in the Oval Office—ended up at the Roosevelt Library? It certainly isn’t normal practice to transfer historic furniture in the White House collection to other institutions. Well, when President Roosevelt died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, Vice President Harry Truman became president. Truman, it seems, felt that the Oval Office desk and chair used by his famous predecessor should be given to Eleanor Roosevelt. Shortly after FDR’s death, he presented them to Mrs. Roosevelt. She then donated both to the Roosevelt Library, where they were placed on public display. They have remained on exhibit in the Museum ever since.
One thing Museum visitors notice immediately when they encounter FDR’s desk is the clutter of objects on it. This is historically accurate.
For, as you can see in this overhead view of the desk taken during World War II, the President kept it covered with objects ranging from the practical (a telephone, letter openers, a desk pad, and pens) to the humorous (including figurines of donkeys, elephants and other animals). Over the years, FDR added and subtracted items on the desk and shifted the position of others. After his death, the objects that remained were shipped to the Roosevelt Library with the desk.
We have arranged the desk largely as it appeared the last time FDR sat at it in March 1945. Nearly all of the things you see here are original pieces—though there are a few replicas of objects we don’t have in our collection. There are dozens of items on the desk, but I only have space in this article to describe a few. One item visible on the left side of the desk is this leather portfolio.
It contains photos of FDR’s four sons: James, Elliott, Franklin Jr., and John. All four served in America’s military during World War II. Like any parent of children serving in harm’s way, the President wanted to keep photos of his sons close at hand.
Many objects FDR kept on his desk reflect his whimsical side. There are ceramic pigs and roosters, small gadgets, and a number of stuffed animals and figurines of Democratic donkeys and Republican elephants. In this example, the symbols of the two political parties are chained together—perhaps as way to get them to cooperate.
The last desk item I have space for here is the leather appointments easel FDR kept on his desk. Every morning, his secretary would place a typed list of his daily appointments inside this easel. We have placed a reproduction of the calendar for March 29, 1945 in the easel. That was the very last day President Roosevelt sat at this desk.
If you want to learn more about FDR’s Oval Office desk and other objects in the Museum, I encourage you to experience our Virtual Museum Tour and explore our Digital Artifact Collection.
Go to our YouTube page to watch Supervisory Curator Herman Eberhardt give a talk about President Roosevelt’s Oval Office Desk.
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