TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Why Is the Oval Office Oval?

November 19, 2013 ( – Why is the Oval Office in the White House an oval shape?

After his inauguration President Taft held a competition to select an architect to enlarge and make permanent the West Wing’s “temporary” executive office built during Theodore Roosevelt’s first term. The winning architect, Nathan C. Wyeth, modeled the new president’s office after the White House’s original oval-shaped Blue Room, the shape of which was inspired by George Washington.

Before moving to the president’s house in Philadelphia in 1791, George Washington ordered that the straight rear walls of the principal two rooms be rebuilt into a semi-circular form, the inspiration for the oval shape of the Blue Room. The shape was preferred by Washington to create a suitable space for a formal reception known as a “levee.”

The levee, a tradition borrowed from the English court, was a formal occasion to allow men of prominence to meet the president. Replete with formal dress, silver buckles, and powdered hair, the event was a stiff public ceremony almost military in its starkness. Invited guests entered the room and walked over to the president standing before the fireplace and bowed as a presidential aide made a low announcement of their names. The visitor then stepped back to his place. After fifteen minutes the doors were closed and the group would have assembled in a circle. The president would then walk around the circle, addressing each man by his name from memory with some pleasantry or studied remark of congratulation, which might have a political connotation. He bowed, but never shook hands. When he had rounded the circle, the president returned to his place before the mantel and stood until, at a signal from an aide, the guests went to him, one by one, bowed without saying anything, and left the room.