Mental Notes On Metal Desks

In years past, it was at the heart of almost all recreation centers.

Scrapes and bruises were treated on it; kids as well as staff seemed to hang from it. You could kick it, stand on it, and even eat your lunch from it. This most amazing piece of recreation lore is the metal desk.

To some degree, it has gone away with paper registration. But, unlike the mountainous stack of paper and the line of customers at the rec center on the first day of camp registration, the metal desk holds a special place in my heart. Where has it gone and why?

The Anatomy Of A Metal Desk

The classic metal desk is constructed of a minimum of 80-percent metal compound, although traditionalists prefer one closer to the 95-percent-plus mark. In general, there are three drawers on one side, a pencil drawer in the middle and one or two deep well drawers on the other side.

The color schemes vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but typically the body had a different color than the top. The tell-tale sign of a well-worn metal desk is a crater or “moon-like” design across the body, characterized by deep alternating depressions speckled with rust. In many respects it is these craters or “battle scars” that make the desks so valuable and sought after. Each depression is a story, a moment etched in time forever.

Shock And Awe

Recently I needed a desk for a satellite office I share with another employee. In the current economic climate, purchasing a new one did not seem financially sound. Instead, I asked around to see if anyone had an extra one.

A week went by with no leads, and then I saw a co-worker who inquired about my search. He explained he had one desk that was collecting dust in the back of his storage shed and I was more than welcome to it. He added he was reluctant to say anything initially because the desk was a bit outdated, heavy, noisy, rusty, and an eyesore--even in his shed.

I met him the next day at the site to take a look. As he opened the shed doors, I was flooded-- not by a horde of cockroaches--but with countless memories. It was the grandest desk I had ever seen--all metal, the bottom a dark shade of brown and the top puke-green. Beautiful! The cabinets rang with noise as I pulled them in and out. As I slid my hand across the body of the desk, I could feel all the balls and bats that had scarred it over the years. It was perfect!

My enthusiasm caught my co-worker by surprise. He started looking through the desk, wondering if a pile of money was stored in the back of the cabinets. No, I told him, the desk reminds me of years past, and its sentimental value is worth more than anything.

Unfortunately, moving the desk had to wait because the two of us were not capable on our own without serious bodily injury. The next day, four of us loaded and transported it to its new home. The responses from other employees were mixed--while some sought therapy for me, others reminisced. It seemed almost everyone had a memory or two of a metal desk they once sat behind or better, sat on.

The Future Of Fine Furniture

Where did the metal desks go? As old recreation centers were retrofitted and updated, old behemoths of desks did not fit into the modern-day office. They were either auctioned off, given to maintenance personnel for their sheds, or put in dumpsters.

Fortunately, several manufacturers offer trimmed-down versions of these desks in a variety of designs and colors. While they may not require four people to move them anymore, they still give the parks and recreation professional the same durability and functionality--more or less.

Do metal desks have a place in today’s parks and recreation organization? On pure aesthetics, even I would have to say that is debatable, but is there a middle ground? Even with the advent of recreation software, paperless registration has not conquered all. The qualities that made the metal desks such a mainstay for so many years are still applicable today.

With a long life-expectancy and high durability, they still have many qualities consumers look for in a desk in a community-center setting. With a hurricane or tornado looming overhead, drive-by shootings outside, or a bench-clearing brawl in the gym, what better and safer place is there to be than under a metal desk? When you think about it, a metal desk has numerous advantages over its engineered wood-and-plastic counterpart.

Don’t Assume New Is Better

Another point that makes the metal desk a tougher sell is the advent of more sustainable and environmentally friendly materials. Particle board, pine, oak and aluminum--while they held the majority of the market share years ago--have seen a decline recently as newer, greener products enter. In an effort to reduce their ecological footprint, consumers gravitate more toward these products.

Asked about a metal desk versus environmentally friendly materials, Brad Miller, Director of Communications and Government Affairs for the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association International, states, “It is hard to say how a metal desk will fare … [I]f such a desk is built using best practices for material usage and energy sources, and is able to be recycled at the end of its useful lifespan, it may be as ’green’ as many other products.

Ultimately, customers have to judge best value. While durability and a good price have long been high on the shopping list for end-users, there now is an easy way for customers to gauge the sustainability of a product.”

While admittedly I have a fondness for old metal desks, I do not dream about or hold my family hostage to my affliction. Therapy has never been suggested by co-workers, nor has the thought of forming a non-profit group to save these “giant strides” ever crossed my mind.

So, I feel comfortable saying that if you know of such a desk in your organization, or better yet sit behind such a desk, treasure it. Get out of your chair, and sit on it, slide the drawers in and out, and let it sing. Like the manual air-pump and paper registration (the latter I do not miss), soon the metal desk will be but a memory.

Curiously, though, as I push back from my new-old desk in my plastic and cloth-fabric chair and close my thoughts on this article, I can’t help but think something is missing. I’ll save my explorations for a fitting chair for another day.

Steve Yeskulsky is a CPRP currently working in the parks and recreation industry in Sarasota, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at