Franklin Delano Roosevelt has always one of the most interesting presidents to me. My interest may have started when my parents took us to Campobello Park, the Roosevelt’s summer home in New Brunswick, Canada, when I was ten. It certainly could be my appreciation of his reaction to the Great Depression and the creation of the New Deal programs. It certainly could be his relationship with Eleanor, the first really vocal first lady. So, a trip through Hyde Park NY gave me a chance to visit their homes and learn some more about them.
When I arrived at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Home and Presidential Library NHS I was struck by its size. I always knew that FDR was one of the richest presidents of the 20th century, but the drive up to the visitor’s center really brought that home. Today, the National Historic Site occupies a small portion of the original estate, but it is an impressive 3 sq. km (1.2 sq. miles). The land was purchased in 1867 by James Roosevelt, Franklin’s father. After passing down the long drive I arrived at the visitor’s center. It is one of the largest I have encountered that is not in a National Park. I signed up for a tour of the house, and waited for it to start. The center is named for Henry A. Wallace, Roosevelt’s VP during his third term. It houses an auditorium where there is a film that gives some of the history of FDR and the estate, a sculpture courtyard, a small cafeteria and, of course, a souvenir shop.
Near the visitor’s center is the FDR Presidential Library. In 1937, Roosevelt was the first president to create a research institution for his papers, and in 1940, he turned the collection over to the federal government. Today the library holds over 17 million pages of documents, 150,000 audiovisual items and 50,000 books. It is also home to two exhibition spaces. One is a permanent exhibit covering Roosevelt’s time as president, giving a historical context and exploring “Roosevelt’s relationship with the American People.” The second gallery hosts temporary exhibitions related to American culture and history during the Great Depression and the Second World War.
|FDR Presidential Library|
The walk from the visitor’s center to Springwood took me past a rose garden, and the burial site of Franklin and Eleanor. Springwood originally built in 1800 as a “farmhouse,” but it was remodeled and expanded many times over the years. It is not the imposing of the mansions built by New York’s rich elite on their Hudson Valley estates, but it is a very pretty structure. One thing was made clear by the tour guide, Springwood was Sara Roosevelt’s house. Franklin’s mother owned the house until her death in 1941, and she ran it the way she wanted. In fact, Sara controlled the family’s finances, and doted on her son. She moved to Boston while Franklin was a student at Harvard. When Franklin and Eleanor needed a home in New York City, Sara agreed to build them one, as long as they agreed for her to live next door, and she constructed connecting doors between the two buildings. This led to a complicated relationship with her daughter-in-law.
One thing that struck me is how dark the house is kept today. I know that the windows are shaded to stop damage from sunlight, but the interior lighting, especially on the first floor, is kept very low. I hope that more light was let in when Sara and Franklin lived here, because today it is almost mausoleum-like. The hose is filled with the artifacts of the lives of the Roosevelts. Paintings and sculptures fill the first floor’s entry way. This floor was the family’s public area. The dining room, living room and office along with the kitchen occupy the ground floor. Upstairs are the family and guest bedrooms. Many of the family’s things are still present.
You might have noticed that I haven’t written a lot about Eleanor Roosevelt. Well, Springwood was Sara’s house, and it was not a place where Eleanor was made to feel particularly comfortable. She lived, by choice, in another part of the Roosevelt estate – Val-Kill. And that is next week’s story.