Many of us who work in offices have a favourite desk. It might have been with us for years. It might even have a story behind it.
Here is the story behind a desk like that. It might be the most famous desk in the world; it certainly sits in one of the most famous offices in the world — the Oval Office in the White House, Washington D.C. The US President — in fact just about every President since Rutherford Hayes (in office from 1877 to 1881) — has used it somewhere in the White House.
Searching the Artic
The desk gets its name from a frigate of the Royal Navy. H.M.S. Resolute was especially configured for arctic exploration with massive timbers, an internal heating system and a polar bear figurehead. In 1852 Resolute became part of an expedition sent to search for one of Victorian Britain’s most famous explorers, Sir John Franklin.
Franklin, it would eventually be learned, had already perished along with his crew some five years earlier of cold and starvation in the Arctic wilderness. The Resolute, in the course of the search, became icebound in the wake of a surprise cold snap in August of 1853. All attempts to break the ship free failed and the frigate was finally abandoned in May of the following year when the Spring thaws failed to free her.
That, so far as anyone knew, was the end of HMS Resolute until September of 1855 when she was discovered, adrift but still seaworthy, by the American whaler George Henry, some 1200 miles from the spot where she had been abandoned in the ice sixteen months earlier.
The dumbfounded Yankee whalers climbed aboard their newly-found trophy and sailed her in company with the George Henry, back home to New London Connecticut, arriving on Christmas Eve.
Second tour of duty
U.S. Congress, after some indecision, bought the ship and refitted her. Arctic exploration — the frigate’s intended purpose and the only thing she was well-suited for — was not a priority for a USA on the brink of civil war, so the ship was finally sailed across the Atlantic and presented to Queen Victoria on 13 December 1856 as a token of national courtesy.
HMS Resolute, in the Royal Navy a second time, served until her retirement in1879 when the ship was decommissioned and broken up.
The ship’s massive timbers were found to be in excellent condition and at least three desks are known to have been built from them. One, commissioned by Queen Victoria, came to be used aboard the Royal Yacht Victoria & Albert. It remains part of the Royal Collection and is now on long-term loan to the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth.
The second desk is a smaller, lady’s desk that has found its way to New Bedford, Massachusetts where it now sits on display as part of that city’s Whaling Museum.
The greatest desk constructed from the old frigate’s timbers was what is known as a “partner’s desk” and it was built by cabinet makers at the Joiner’s Shop of Chatham Dockyard. It was presented by Queen Victoria to the aforementioned President Hayes in 1880 as a gesture of thanks for the rescue and return of Resolute.
A token of common heritage
Virtually every president since Hayes has used the “Resolute desk” — as it has come to be known — in one or another place in the White House. Several, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and most recently George H. W. Bush, have used the it in the presidential private study.
The desk has been modified twice. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered a hinged front panel for the key hole opening in order to hide his leg braces.
The second modification was directed by Ronald Reagan, who used a chair he had brought from the capital in California; it raised him to the point that his knees bumped the desk. As a result, the desk was raised two inches by the addition of a separate, matching base.
First Lady Jackie Kennedy had the desk moved into the Oval Office in 1961 for her husband’s administration. It has since been removed from the White House only once, after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, when President Johnson consented to the desk’s inclusion as part of a traveling exhibition with the Kennedy Presidential Library.
After the traveling exhibition the desk went on display in the Smithsonian Institution until President Jimmy Carter brought it back to the Oval Office, where Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and now Barack Obama have used it.