Victorian Desk Preident Kennedy

Oval Office Desk For the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library

It is the most famous desk in America; one that every American knows from the iconic picture of President John F. Kennedy working, while his son “John John” plays beneath it.  However, the history of this desk, and the story of how it came to represent the presidency and our nation, is seldom told. In 1845, England sent a fleet of ships under the command of Royal Navy Adm. John Franklin to find the Northwest Passage. The mission was a disaster: the ships became entombed in ice and despite the British admiralty’s most extensive search in its history, they were never found. A decade later, one of the ill fated search vessels, the H.M.S Resolute, broke out of the ice and floated out into the open, where it was discovered by an American Whaler. The resolute was brought back to Boston harbor, where the U.S. Government bought it for $40,000 and returned it to England as a goodwill gesture.

When the ship was decommissioned, Queen Victoria herself, commissioned a desk to be made from the oak timbers of the ship, and presented it to the United States in gratitude. It subsequently wound up in the cellar of the Smithsonian Institution. After the better part of a century had passed, it was discovered by Jacqueline Kennedy, who had it brought to the oval office.

Robert Whitley having made several important historical reproductions for Independence Hall, George Washington’s headquarters, and Franklin Court, was commissioned by the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston to make a copy of The Resolute desk for public display. Antique Victorian Desk Robert Whitley

Making reproductions of important period furniture is a long and involved process, and in this case it was complicated not only by the complexity of the cabinetmaking but also by the security constraints at the white house. Whitley, working against a tight deadline, spent nearly a year on the project, which started with a trip to Washington D.C.. He was allowed in the oval office for only 3 ½ days while the president was away on a foreign diplomacy mission to Germany. During that time, Whitley had to photograph the desk, do rubbings,

drawings, sketches and take precise measurements. It was a frantic and difficult task, complicated by the security measures of the secret service. During these three days Robert Whitley was only allowed in the oval office between the hours of 9am and 3:30pm. Two Secret service men followed Whitley’s every move, many times so closely that they were bumping into each other.

Kennedy Patricia Lawford

Above: Patricia Kennedy Lawford sister to President Kennedy, paid a personal visit to confer with Robert Whitley on the desk.

The desk, the most complicated piece of furniture made by Whitley, had complex carvings, including the presidential seal, the American flag, an eagle and several other pictorials. The desk was made of white oak, which is a particularly difficult wood to carve because oak is so hard and prone to splintering.  Each piece was specially selected to match the grain of the Victorian desk.  In addition the desk was unusual because many of the drawers were enclosed by doors.  All of this required not only a tremendous amount of handwork from Whitley, but a great deal of detective work.  Whitley found the English firm that made the original antique brown and gold embossed leather top and had that firm recreate an identical piece for his copy.

Robert Whitley’s work has brought an important piece of our nation’s history to the public; allowing thousands of visitors to see in person, a national treasure.