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For Teddy Roosevelt’s “Summer White House”: “Sagamore Hill”

"I do not believe that any man can adequately appreciate the world of today unless he has some knowledge of...some feeling for...the history of the world of the past." Theodore Roosevelt

Suddenly I am at loss for words. It is so unlike me especially when the topic is Teddy Roosevelt. But today for some reason I cannot seem to wrap my brain around him or find the words I want to share. It is like I am in fog trying to navigate my way back to another day and time. As I think back to that day I was exploring Sagamore Hill, I realized I was also retracing the legacy he left behind.

When I think of Teddy Roosevelt the first image I see is that of him as Colonel Roosevelt in that famous photo where he is standing proud looking far into the distance. The strength of his character always shows no matter what he is doing in the photo.

Interestingly enough I see this picture every week when I watch “Blue Bloods” starring Tom Selleck as the NYC Police Commissioner. Teddy Roosevelt was police commissioner of NYC from 1895-1897. It was he who, as Governor in 1901, created this singular position from the former jobs of superintendent and commissioner. For clarification Teddy Roosevelt has been NYS Governor, NYC Police Commissioner, Vice President, and then President for two terms (as a result of President McKinley’s assassination and then from an election). His knowledge of public office spanned the gamut, as he was also Secretary of the Navy and a vital member of the notorious Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War.

This was not a man who wanted to have a lot of free time on his hands. That is probably largely due to how sick he was as a child. It is hard to imagine given the stories we are told about this Roosevelt, going off on safari hunting wild animals, but it is true. He was severely asthmatic and spent a great deal of his young years in bed waiting for it to be his turn to live the life he dreamt of. He fought back by vigorously exercising to build up his strength. His will to live and live on his terms is remarkable.

As anyone who has ever dealt with any kind of illness that had kept you from doing what you love for an extended period of time can relate. Besides the fascination I have for his ability to return fully to life after such a hard beginning, I also see him as a subject of profound inspiration for sufferers of chronic illnesses and what we can still accomplish in spite of it.

So now that you know, at least somewhat briefly, about the man and my adoration for him let’s return the house. Once again you will notice this from my 2015/2016 to do list ( Each year I feel my deadlines come faster and faster. In the beginning of March, for my blog’s anniversary, I always post the updated list. I am hoping to have a bit more done by then, fingers crossed.

After seeing FDR’s estate, Springwood, I was just that much more eager to see Teddy’s. I loved that this would be a much closer trek to Nassau County than going upstate. It turns out my family loved that part too. I had an aunt and uncle accompany my mother and me on this adventure. It would be a great visit with each other and these Roosevelts.

You already heard about our feast once the sightseeing was done ( so now you need to know what we did to work up such an appetite.

For starters this attraction has just been freshly renovated. It reopened in July 2015 after being closed for some time for extensive cleaning and repairs. I mistakenly thought I would be the only one counting down to its grand reopening. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The crowds that assembled that day only increased and tickets were sold out for weeks and then months. You have to have a timed ticket entry to visit and I thought I could grab mine during the week to visit the following weekend. Not even close. I went over a month later for the first tour because it was literally the last few tickets able on a weekend for some time. I was okay with visiting during the fall because walking in direct sunlight didn’t jazz with my migraine brain.

Now that I had my coveted spot I was experiencing nothing short of adulation. Of course my day had been previously planned; I knew I would visit Sagamore Hill both the house and the museum on its property, before making my way to Young’s Memorial Cemetery to pay my respects to the late President in person. I had no idea which part I was most excited to see.

Sagamore Hill is the name of the home of former President Theodore Roosevelt and his family. Much like his enormous personality this home too boasts from a high hill vantage point looking down and around the Long Island enclave of Oyster Bay.

During the initial construction of Sagamore Hill TR experienced a double tragedy. His wife Alice died in childbirth on the same day his mother passed away in February 1884. All that remained was his newborn daughter also named Alice.

Over time he would marry his second wife Edith, complete the construction of Sagamore Hill and have five additional children all of whom were raised in this house.

The tour starts off on a walk from the visitor’s center, one way TOO hot store for me, towards the house. Unlike at Springwood the house has no other buildings in its line of site. Your motivation for the walk, on a slightly steep hill, is staring you right in the face. The closer you get the more you see and the more you hope this will really be a butt toning activity.

This house is beyond gorgeous. Once again I am seeing wood floors, stairs, and the like everywhere. Each piece is more gorgeous than the next. Of any historical home I have visited I wanted to live in this one the most. And that was before I saw the room on the second floor they used exclusively for luggage. When I saw that I was convinced there must be some Roosevelt DNA in me somewhere. I hope to find out for sure when it’s my turn to be on “Who Do You Think You Are?”

The best room on the first floor has to be the North Room. It was TR’s great study and home office during the many summers he spent there while he was president. That is why Sagamore Hill was often called “The Summer White House”. TR had his staff set up several phone lines so he never had to be too far from home and family.

For a fun Roosevelt family fun fact it was Teddy who walked Eleanor down the aisle at her wedding to Franklin as her father and Teddy’s brother Elliot had already died.

We also saw the library, dining room, each with the most (ok I am going to say it a lot) gorgeous decorative style. I liked each motif. In the North Room it is hard not to notice all of the animal trophies that TR collected or was gifted to him. The enormous elephant tusks were one of such gifts from a visiting dignitary. I know this goes against “Blackfish” and PETA politics but they were extraordinary. Second to the many dear like animal heads that can be found just about everywhere, there are a few bear rugs. My favorite was the grizzly bear in his upstairs office. It was the room they used to open Christmas presents in every year despite the size. The grizzly bear rug was so remarkable and the giant, very well cleaned claws, made it look more like a piece of art than an animal carcass.

Once upstairs there were many bedrooms that were switched around often to accommodate the family as the children grew. Unlike FDR’s Springwood, Sagamore Hill did not have a birthing room. What a shame with six kids it would have in handy during their early years in the home.

As you would expect everything was in its place. I felt like I was Goldilocks sneaking in trying to figure out what bedroom would be just right for me before those nosey bears came back. Ironically the bears were already is this house. That was okay because I would have never been able to choose just one room from this collection. Perhaps one nearest the luggage room? I am mentioning it again because it’s a room for luggage!!!! That will be never get old for me.

I would have been content to just stand in the house for hours doing nothing but peering in each room over and over again. I couldn’t get over the grandeur of this home while still managing to have that comfy home feel. I can see why TR loved this house and its land so much. You get the feeling of how happy that family was here. If I were them I would be pissed it was given to the Parks Department instead of letting me live there but this are really devoted patriots. They probably aren’t as selfish as I would be. But I was in that house and believe me people it was simply marvelous.

Now if hunting is not your thing, and it’s not mine, this might be a reason to avoid this house. However if you know your history this is actually a source of pride, one of TR’s greatest achievements. When he left the presidency he went on a goodwill tour and safari hunt. When you to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (, to the Field Museum in Chicago, or the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, you are seeing the treasures TR brought back with him. They are treasures because it was the first time these creatures had been studied and seen up close. They all remain on exhibit.

To further demonstrate how TR was not just hunting for hunting’s sake, I must tell you one of the best stories that exist about Teddy Roosevelt. While out on one of his many trips, this time to Mississippi, he was presented with an older bear that had been caught and trapped so that the president, once he arrived, was guaranteed a shot. Immediately aghast of this Roosevelt had the bear put down seeing how much pain he was in. He wasn’t in the business of cruelty for cruelty’s sake.

From the numerous cartoons and articles about this event a Brooklyn toy maker created what are now known around the world as “Teddy Bear’s” (with the presidents permission). They were an instant hit and continue to be. The Theodore Roosevelt Association allows them to be purchased for ill and dying children. Please see the very last link on the bottom to contribute.

Since we are on the topic of attempted assignation let’s talk about that time Teddy Roosevelt decided he might want back into the White House and went to Milwaukee to give a speech. During the speech in 1912, a lunatic took a shot and actually hit the president, right in the glasses. In his pocket there was the reading case for his glasses as well as a copy of the fifty-page speech he was about to give. Luckily these items protected TR from dying. The bullet struck his rib where it remained for the rest of his life. The torn speech is part of the permanent exhibit in the Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C.

At the time Teddy Roosevelt was known to have said:

"No man has had a happier life than I have led; a happier life in every way”.

This was a man that was destined for greatness. Certainly a bullet could not slow him down. He finished the speech and continued on with the press junket. He would not die for another seven years. It makes sense then that his death came as a big surprise.

Theodore Roosevelt died as a result from a brain hemorrhage at Sagamore Hill on January 6, 1919 when he was in his sixth decade.

Ted Roosevelt Jr., eldest son of the president, hoped eventually to take over the house and to raise his family in it. However his mother Edith wanted to remain in the old house so she gave Ted a few acres of land on the property to build a new one (eventually known as the Old Orchard house). This is currently the site that houses the museum we visited.

The museum was small but mighty. Everything I saw I loved. There was his safari outfit, cowboy hat, replicas of Mount Rushmore, an invitation to his inauguration as well as newspapers from the day he died. I was savoring each artifact before I was able to move on to the next. It was like a perfectly taken care of time capsule we were able to walk through. It didn’t take very long but had left lasting impressions.

Despite extensive travels in her later years Edith Roosevelt always came back to the house at Sagamore Hill. She died there in September 1948 at the age of eighty-seven.

Naturally my next stop was down the hill, across the street, to Youngs Memorial Cemetery where this great man and his wife were laid to rest. In reverence to Victorian traditions Edith remained at home at Sagamore Hill during the President’s funeral while the rest of the mourners proceeded onward.

In a fitting tribute, the President’s final resting place is a top another hill, in the cemetery, appropriately twenty-six steps up from the path. I love the symbolism, as he was our twenty-sixth president. When you arrive as a visitor now, they have a brochure with all of the details of that day. For me it was hard not to feel like I was there for the real thing. I was surprisingly more moved than I thought I would be. I guess spending the entire day “with” him, thinking of his life and contributions to the way we live now made me sad but also determined to take control of my own journey. As Elizabeth Gilbert would say “take the fear with you”. That is definitely something Teddy seemed to incorporate into his life.

When the ceremony ended, one mourner stayed behind. Former President William Howard Taft—by turns a political ally and a foe—stood by the grave weeping. As he later wrote to Edith Roosevelt, “I loved him always and cherish his memory.” America felt the same. 

While I was at the cemetery I saw many other Roosevelt graves, but unlike TR and Edith, there were no gates around them. I sat on a bench with my uncle for a while talking and looking at the gorgeous view we had of Oyster Bay. It really was a beautiful day full of meaning inside and out.

Apparently it’s all Teddy all of the time. I hear more tales and facts about that man now than I did in school. I really wish history lessons had been more informed and included trips like this.

Recently I even saw a news report on “60 Minutes” about TR’s influence on football. I had turned the television on just as this segment was airing and learned even more about him. It turns out he believed football was a sport that toughened you up for battle and wanted to see it continued. He was the one to step in and negotiate the rules that players use to this today. Out of safety concerns plays or hits from back then are no longer allowed thus saving many men from brain injuries, although as we see today that is not one hundred percent the case.
In his honor there are many, many things named for this Roosevelt or capture his image. There is the Theodore Roosevelt Park in North Dakota (which is currently number five of the New York Times “52 Places to Go in 2016 He is one of the four presidents captured on Mount Rushmore and the town of Roosevelt; Long Island was named for him too. He is even a character in the popular movies “Night at the Museum”.

His birthplace in Manhattan has been closed for renovations but it set to open later this year. I have such a strong urge to visit there now that I have completed Sagamore Hill. Actually I wish I could have gone that day. It remains my only other immediate Teddy Roosevelt need at this moment. I suppose I will also hit up FDR’s family home while I am in New York City that day. I keep my friends close but my Roosevelts even closer.

In a bit of irony it is TR’s childhood home where the American Museum of Natural History got its start. The charter was signed in the parlor in 1869. Now I really am desperate to get in there.

The former airstrip in Long Island that Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart used was converted to a mall, which was named for Quentin Roosevelt (Roosevelt Field). He was Teddy’s son who died during World War I in 1918. The airfield was closed in 1951. That is when and that’s when the world-renowned I. M. Pei (who also designed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio) came in.

Also in remembrance of Quentin, there is a street by my house called Quentin Road. Up until about a month or two ago I had NO idea that I was passing a Roosevelt family tribute on a daily basis. It is so ironic to me now that I sought out this family while the signs were always there waiting for me to notice.

There is literally too much about Teddy Roosevelt’s life to contain in just one blog so I have done the best I could, sharing my favorite stories and attributes. I attempted to do this while remembering the reasons that drew me to Sagamore Hill in the first place. Reviewing the house and what I learned was my original mission but now when I look back I feel that it was more a journey of self-discovery, not just because I wish I was a Roosevelt, but because there is more to learn in that one house than you can find in most villages. Then again Oyster Bay is not most villages. I finally get why these two were a match made in historical heaven.

Vice-president Thomas Marshall said:

"Death had to take him sleeping, for if Roosevelt had been awake, there would have been a fight."

Surely a truer statement has never been made.

P.S. R. Kelly also had a house on a hill but that story ended very differently.

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