Why do so many White House rooms have an elliptical "oval" shape?
The Oval shape of rooms in the White House was chosen to accommodate a formal greeting ceremony known as a "levee." The ceremony has its roots in the royal courts of England and particularly France.
The White House Historical Associationhow it worked in America:
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 15 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.
George Washington ordered the bowed walls that characterize the three oval-shaped rooms on the South side of the White House residence: the Diplomatic Reception Room, the Blue Oval room on the State Floor and the Yellow Oval Room on the third floor, expressly for the levee.
But the ceremony was only briefly used. The practice was not loved by John Adams, the White House’s first resident. While Adams accepted the reasoning behind the levee, an efficient way to grant wider access to the president in a manner consistent with his station, he didn't disguise his personal distaste for it. In ato his wife Abigail, Adams said simply:
"I hate levees …"
The levee was promptly abolished by Thomas Jefferson, who saw the ritualized grandeur of the ceremony as uncomfortably close to the trappings of monarchy from which the young nation had just fought a revolution to divorce itself. The oval shape nevertheless was reprised in the design of the iconic President’s office when the West Wing was built in 1909. The shape of the Oval Office serves no formal purpose except as a homage to the oval rooms of the White House residence, reinforcing the sense of awe for the power wielded within it.
In the 1950s, yeti hunting was all the rage among explorers. In 1951, mountaineer Eric Shipton’s expedition to Mt. Everest brought back photos of a mysterious three-toed footprint; in 1954, the Daily Mail sent scientists and mountaineers on a 6-month “Snowman Expedition” to the Himalayas specifically to find the mysterious creature. None of their research was conclusive, but that didn't stop adventure-seekers from trying to find evidence of the yeti's existence.
The U.S. government took the time in 1959 to remind these zealots that if they found a yeti, they couldn't shoot it. Unless it was trying to kill them, of course.
In a state department memo dated December 10, 1959, government officials laid out the regulations that governed yeti hunting in Nepal.
First of all, it was not going to be free. Would-be trackers were ordered to get a permit from the Nepali government, paying 5000 rupees (adjusting for inflation, about $1100 today) for the privilege.
Furthermore, the Nepali government was entitled to any evidence the hunters found. Any photos taken or reports proving the animal’s existence had to be surrendered to the government, and if there was going to be a report “throwing light on the actual existence of the creature,” it couldn’t be given to the press until the government approved it. If the creature was captured, obviously, it would also have to be turned over to the state. Dead or alive.
And last, and most importantly, that “dead or alive” clause wasn’t permission to go around shooting mythical creatures. Yetis could only be killed or shot in self-defense. Finding the yeti was a scientific pursuit, not a trophy sport.
Why did the U.S. government care? According to the National Archives—which currently has the yeti memo on display—it was a diplomatic move. The Nepali government had issued the memo two years earlier, but when the U.S. translated it into English, it was signaling its support of Nepal’s sovereign rule. In doing so, the U.S. hoped Nepal—which neighbors China—would be friendly to Americans' desire to keep tabs on China's communist government.
“Although, at first glance, a memo about yeti-hunting seems fanciful, it is in fact representative of American Cold War strategies to combat what they saw as the rising threat of communism,” historian Sanjana Barr writes on the National Archives’ blog.