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Oval Office ceiling medallion

April 2, 2009

Visitor MAC sent a note asking about the ceiling of the Oval Office. The two photos I have—both of which are from replicas in presidential museums, I’m pretty sure—show the Seal of the President of the United States with the eagle facing the olive branch. MAC wondered if this was changed by Truman and if he also changed the number of stars in it, and also why the medallion uses 8-pointed stars rather than 5-pointed stars used elsewhere. I don’t know the answers to these questions, so I put it to you, the White House enthusiasts at large.

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6 comments

  1. LOng time WH florist Nancy Clarke will be retiring at the wend of May. She has served six presidents and will be missed!


  2. The legend says that the ceiling was done post FDR with the Eagle facing the olive branches per Trumans new doctrine. The people who did the work used the wrong stars (8 vs 5 pt) and as a result, did the work for the Truman portico for free…..this is the story I heard over and over again when giving WW tours, but I would never repeat it since I did know if it were true or not.


  3. I’ve seen the ceiling of the oval office (during Clinton’s term) and the stars are six, not eight-pointed.

    -CR


  4. For whatever it’s worth, Wikipedia has a picture (linked below) of the Oval ceiling; the caption is “Plaster ceiling medallion installed in 1934 includes elements of the Seal of the President of the United States.” Note that the stars are have eight points. I’m not claiming the picture and caption to the the final authority (certainly bits and pieces have changed in the Oval, such as the 2005 floor).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:OvalMedallion.jpg


  5. Definately 8 pt stars. No doubt about it, unless of course Clinton went to six and Bush went back to 8.


  6. In actuality, the seal that you see used on the ceiling, the JFK desk, and the cornerstone of the East Wing were not official seals at all. The history of the seal of the president dates to 1877 when Rutherford B. Hayes used the first version of the presidential seal (showing the eagle facing the arrows of war) on an invitation to Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich of Russia as his first foreign dinner guest.

    Over time, the seal changed somewhat in design to a more ‘robust’ eagle, but was still used mainly on invitations, never on official correspondence. The version you see is similar in design to one originally created by artist Philip Martiny in 1903 and installed in the floor of the Cross Hall until the Truman reconstruction placed it above the doorway leading into the Diplomatic Reception Room.

    During WWII the rank of General of the Army with five stars was created. This put this design at odds with the presidential flag that featured only four white stars, one in each corner of the presidential military standard which featured yet another redesign of the original presidential coat-of-arms of Rutherford B. Hayes. Franklin Roosevelt ordered a redesign of the presidential standard, but died before the project was completed.

    Harry Truman picked up the redesign and created the redesign of the flag to include the new eagle facing the olive branches of peace (to correspond to traditional heraldic design that an animal always faces to its own right) and a circle of 48 stars, one for each state at the time (the 49th and 50th stars were added under Eisenhower).

    However, it turns out that the presidential seal used since Rutherford B. Hayes through FDR was never codified, not even through a presidential order. The new seal of the president was also redesigned at this point to add the legend “Seal of the President of the United States” to the Truman flag design and finally codified on October 25, 1945 through a presidential order.

    Why the ceiling design in the Oval Office features 8 pointed stars isn’t clear. It may have just been artistic license as the seal that Philip Martiny was also artistic license from the earlier Hayes seal. Additionally, the presidential seal above the Blue Room from the Cross Hall also features an additional circle between the stars and eagle, an obvious departure from the presidential order.

    As an aside, no one knows who designed the original coat-of-arms used by Rutherford B. Hayes on the first presidential invitation. Those that study flags (vexillology) and seals as I have over the past 30 years have traced the design to the 1840s when it was featured in a U.S. Army manual as the coat-of-arms of the United States. Hayes, being an old Army captain may have been familiar with the design and began using it on his invitations. However, the U.S. has always had an official Great Seal, never a separate coat-of-arms. Both are quite distinctive in their own rights. So the mystery continues.

    Tom Carrier, vexillologist



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