While I wish I could have found a higher-resolution scan of the image above, it caught my eye nonetheless and I thought I would present it here for what it’s worth. We all know what the Oval Office is, what building it’s in and who works there. I thought this view, from 1909, was a little unusual, however. We’re so used to seeing views of the Oval Office from fairly recent Presidencies; I ran in the “Historic Photo” series a picture of Barack Obama entering the office for the first time in 2009, and when we think of this space we usually think of it being occupied by Presidents we remember from our own lifetimes, often speaking to us from it on TV. It’s rare to see what it looked like before. This is the place as it appeared during the administration of William Howard Taft who worked here from 1909 until he was replaced by Woodrow Wilson in 1913.
This is, in fact, the very first Oval Office. Although the White House was built in the 1790s and Presidents since John Adams have used it as their home base, you don’t hear about old-time Presidents like Andrew Jackson or Abraham Lincoln using the Oval Office–that’s because it didn’t exist yet. The Oval Office is in the West Wing, which was an addition to the White House constructed in 1902. Taft was the first President to use it. His successors up until Herbert Hoover used it, and it appeared very much like it does in this picture for most of that time. Then in December 1929 the West Wing suffered a bad fire. Hoover had it remodeled, but his successor, Franklin Roosevelt, took the opportunity to tear down much of the West Wing and redo it again. It is the oval-shaped room in that iteration of the West Wing, first occupied by FDR in 1934, that is the Oval Office we’ve known in modern times, though it is not much larger than, and evidently occupies the same space as, Taft’s old digs.
This view is from a postcard marketed in 1909. Note the green carpet which matches the walls, probably watered silk. The decor of this room is classically “Federal” while still maintaining a foot in Edwardian tradition. It’s very Spartan, not very lived-in or worked-in. Taft didn’t even have a telephone on his desk. While I have no doubt that running the country was just as stressful a job in 1909 as it is today, the pressures and pace of the job have changed a lot in 107 years. One can easily imagine the portly Taft leaning back in this chair, puffing on a cigar while discussing matters of state.