President Reagan and the Oval Office

President Reagan sitting at his desk and being filmed by NBC working in the Oval Office for the program “A Day in the Life of the President.”

In 1909, President William Taft became the first President to walk into the Oval Office, located in the center of the south side of the West Wing.  In 1934, during President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, the Oval Office was moved to its current location in the West Wing’s southeast corner overlooking the Rose Garden.

In terms of its looks, the Oval Office’s basic shape and architecture have changed very little since the 1930s. However, every president that enters office will make it their own through changes in the interior design.

The Oval Office during President Reagan’s administration.

President Reagan found his inspiration in the West, decorating the room with earthy colors, such as the iron red of the curtains and couch cushions. He also brought in a collection of miniature bronze saddles and different artwork, like one painting depicting Union Soldiers and another of George Washington. Around the room were various sculptures of cowboys and western animals, including a bronze buffalo skull that was a memento of President Theodore Roosevelt, gifted to President Reagan from Archie and Selwa Roosevelt. 

President Reagan displayed many photographs of his family, as well as two photographs of President Eisenhower. On his desk rested the Kennedy Eagle Paperweight and two plaques that encouraged President Reagan each time he sat down. One stated, “It can be done.” The other, “There’s no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” And of course, on his desk sat a jar of jelly bellies, President Reagan’s favorite treat!

In August 1982, President Reagan’s administration replaced the vinyl floor with walnut and white oak. The unique floor design was based on a Eric Guglar design (architect of the 1934 West Wing expansion) that had never been implemented.

President Reagan working on the 1982 State of the Union Address at the Resolute Desk.

Of course, one of the main features of the room is the magnificent desk. Known as the Resolute Desk, it has been used by every president since Hayes (with the exceptions of Johnson, Nixon, and Ford). From this desk, President Reagan spoke to the nation in a televised address following the Challenger explosion in 1986. 

The Resolute Desk, crafted from the wood of the H.M.S. Resolute, an abandoned British ship discovered by an American vessel. The Americans returned the boat to the Queen of England as a token of friendship and goodwill. Queen Victoria then commissioned part of the ship to be turned into a desk as a present to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880.  

Since 1880, the Resolute Desk has only been modified twice. The first was when President Franklin Roosevelt requested that the rear kneehold be filled with a panel carved with the presidential coat-of-arms, which was installed in 1945.  The second was the two-inch base added to the desk in 1986 by President Reagan to accommodate his tall frame and keep the drawers from hitting his knees.

President Reagan’s letter to President Bush.

When it comes time for a President to pass on their duties to their successor, they leave something important on the Oval Office desk: a letter to the next President. President Reagan started this modern tradition, and throughout the years, each President has continued it by leaving a note that gives some words of advice, encouragement, and maybe a joke or two. 

To his friend and former Vice President, President Reagan wrote to President George H.W. Bush:

Dear George,

You’ll have moments when you want to use this particular stationery. Well, go to it.

George, I treasure the memories we share and I wish you all the very best. You’ll be in my prayers. God bless you & Barbara. I’ll miss our Thursday lunches.

Ron

During the eight years of President Reagan’s administration, he spent much of his time working and hoping for a more peaceful world. On his last morning in office in 1989, his National Security Advisor, Colin Powell, gave his final report on the state of the world. Powell said simply, “The world is quiet today, Mr. President.” President Reagan called those the best words ever heard in the Oval Office.

The Oval Office Exhibit at the Reagan Library

The Oval Office exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. This room is a full-sized reproduction of the Oval Office as it appeared during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

At the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, there is an exhibit where visitors can see a reproduction of the Oval Office that President Reagan worked in during his second term. Some of the display’s furnishings are authentic, like the chair behind the desk. President Reagan used the chair for both his two terms as the California Governor and President of the United States.

For Students and Educators:

Discussion Questions:

  1.  If you were elected President, what three items would you put in your oval office? Explain why you chose those items.
  2. President Reagan had a plaque on his desk in the oval office that stated, “There’s no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” What do you think this quote means? Do you agree with it? Why or why not?
  3.  Imagine you were ending your term as President – if you were writing a letter to the next president, what would you say to them? Is there any advice or words of encouragement you would want to give them?

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