The distinctive oval design, however, can be traced back to the very first president of the United States of America: George Washington himself. Since his term predated the White House, Washington resided in a series of presidential mansions—one of which, located in the then-capital city of Philadelphia, was renovated to accommodate a particular political ceremony known as a “levee.” During these formal receptions, visitors would arrange themselves in a circle around Washington, who would then address each of them in turn. To facilitate these levees, the straight rear walls in two main rooms of the presidential home were rebuilt in a semi-circular shape.
The levee ceremonies, English in origin, earned Washington harsh criticism from many citizens of the young nation. The National Gazette decried the practice as “the legitimate offspring of inequality, begotten by aristocracy and monarchy by corruption.” Another writer claimed that, with his levee room, Washington “has exactly copied the style of monarchs…[and] has in short only differed from kings in wanting a kingdom, which his friends were seeking to provide for him.”
The levees would soon be discontinued by the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, who took office in 1801. But the curved walls of Washington’s presidential home had already inspired architect James Hoban, whose winning design for the White House featured an “elliptic saloon” at the center. This oval interior soon became known as the “Blue Room” and originally served as a reception hall for visitors.