Abe Lincoln’s Desk—at Catholic University

In a strange series of small-world and six-degrees-of-separation moments, I ended up at Catholic University yesterday, in the office of President John Garvey, staring at a desk that Abraham Lincoln had used in his Springfield, IL, law office before moving to Washington.

Catholic University President John Garvey, with his family's heirloom

Catholic University President John Garvey, with his family’s heirloom

The chain of events started a couple weeks ago, when I opened my Washington Post Local Living section to the House Calls feature, to see a room sketch by mother-daughter designers Danny Christmas and Shannon Woodward. Mrs. Christmas was our next-door neighbor in Bethesda’s Kenwood when I was a tyke—I hadn’t seen her since we moved away when I was about 8. I was pretty sure it was her, because, well, who ELSE would share her name? Here they are, chic in their fur on a freezing day, outside the university’s Nugent Hall:

christmas

Danny Christmas, left, and daughter Shannon Woodward. Together, they are the talents behind Interior Magic Design in Chevy Chase.

Soooo, after a really great phone conversation with Shannon, I asked if she had any cool projects going on. That’s when she told me about President Garvey’s office, which the pair had decorated, and the aforementioned desk. We arranged to meet there yesterday to get a quick peek while the president was out of the office.

desk

 

As luck would have it, Mr. Garvey came back while we were still there, and he took the time to explain the desk’s history before racing off to teach a class (how cool is it to have a university president still teaching??). This was an enthralling 20 minutes.

During the Depression, Garvey’s grandfather (a Lincoln buff) had purchased all the land surrounding Lincoln’s childhood home in Springfield. Fast forward to the 1960s, and the U.S. Park Service condemned the land to take it over and turn the house into a museum. (At that time, the desk had come into the Garvey family through just three previous owners since it was sold following Lincoln’s assassination.)

Garvey’s father, a lawyer, helped defend his grandfather during the condemnation proceedings so he could get a fair price on the land. He wouldn’t accept payment, of course, since it was all in the family. So instead of monetary compensation, Garvey’s grandfather gave the desk to his father. Today, Garvey still doesn’t know how he managed to beat out his seven siblings to inherit the desk, but he suspects it might be because he’s the oldest of the bunch, and he’s also a lawyer.

Here’s some detail from the desk. You can envision the cabinetmaker etching these lines into the drawer handles—the details are so human.

desk-detail

 

President Garvey’s office is spare from design flourishes, emphasizing mainly the crisp white cabinetry that surrounds the room, all filled to the gills with books. What I love about it is that he has objects in there that mean so much to his family’s history.

Also in the room is an old leather chair, which belonged to Garvey’s grandfather—the first Garvey to own the desk. “This was in grandpa’s library,” Garvey told me. “I would always sit in this chair when I went to visit.” He still sits there when he holds meetings in his office. Here is a small image that Shannon forwarded to me — not the best quality, but you get the idea:

chair

 

So often in design, we like to get lost in the details of fabrics, furnishings, and other embellishments that make a room pretty. It’s also important to include those items that make the room meaningful. Whether it’s a museum-quality heirloom like President Lincoln’s desk, or a chair with the softest leather that’s been buffed through a family’s generations of sitting on it, these kinds of details make a space worth living in.

Danny and Shannon didn’t so much make over the office here as they helped arrange Garvey’s most important belongings in a way that he and his frequent visitors can best enjoy them. Here is their information:

Interior Magic Design, 301.461.3796

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Comments

  1. Cool story, thanks for sharing!

  2. Victor T Woods says:

    Not at all surprised they got awarded Catholic’s contract – my wife and I used them to do our home and 2 vacation homes. They do make magic and very affordable. Good luck!

  3. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for the comment, Victor — a great endorsement!

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