Not many woman could stand living with their mother-in-laws but if she bought you a mansion could you make your peace with it? I surely would give it the old college try.
Such was the case for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his new bride Eleanor. FDR’s smother of a mother bought attached mansions for herself and son and daughter-in-law as a wedding present. Actually she didn't just purchase the homes she had them built.
As Franklin was an only child it is not surprising that his widowed mother would want to be so close to her only family member. But some might think this was a bit much. God bless Eleanor, Lord knows she had her share of crosses to bear that neither began nor ended with this home.
The title of the New York Times article about the site of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s NYC home sums this situation up perfectly: “A Home (Barely) Fit for Two Mrs. Roosevelts”.
The homes, which from the outside look as one but had two interior entry ways, each contain seventeen rooms with an identical layout. The interiors are prefect mirror images of one another. In the middle where they meet are glass windows with a skylight to provide daylight in the center as well as additional air flow.
Despite the connection if either wanted privacy there were hidden doors that could be extended open or shut. In fact they remained closed most of the time with furniture lined up against it to prevent opening it easily. You can still see on the ceiling the line down the middle where the walls can be connected or disconnected. At one point I had a foot in each home thus warranting a photo.
According to Roosevelt House:
“Each unit was six stories with a basement and cellar as well as an elevator. Each first floor had its own front reception room with a welcoming fireplace and a rear dining room. The second floors had libraries and drawing rooms. The family bedrooms were on the third and fourth floors while the fifth and sixth floors provided housing for family employees as well as work spaces. An unusual feature was that the family could open pocket doors between the dining rooms and the drawing rooms to connect the spaces. An additional door on the fourth floor allowed family members to go from one unit to the other. After Hunter College acquired Roosevelt House in 1942, no changes were made to the exterior of the building and only a few interior changes were made, mostly to comply with New York City building codes for public facilities and to meet the needs of the college. Thus, the historic floor plan was substantially preserved. The house became a New York City landmark in 1973 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.”
Each house had approximately eight floors that have now been condensed due renovations by its current owner, Hunter College uses the building as the base for it’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute.
The College purchased the homes from FDR and Eleanor after Sara’s death in 1941 for a whopping fifty-thousand dollars!! Quit a steal I should say. My nephew is still trying to think of ways to raise the money we would need to buy it back.
The homes were finished in 1908, three years after the Roosevelts wed. When they moved in they already had two children. It was exceptionally modern for the era including elevators which would prove to be a necessity when FDR contracted polio in 1921.
I found this tidbit fascinating because when I went to see his home upstate I learned there he refused to have an elevator installed once he fell ill. Instead he pulled himself up to the second floor uses a series of mechanical pulleys while seated in his wheelchair. It was dumbfounding just to look at, let alone use. He had the strength and determination of the Hulk, which is one of the reasons I admire him so much.
The elevators are still in working condition at Roosevelt House although incredibly small and slow. I imagine it to be similar to most European hotels. Sara certainly got her money’s worth.
I am no stranger to FDR nor his homes. As I mentioned above I have visited his Springwood (http://bit.ly/2gqdzZX) sanctuary in Hyde Park, New York, where he was born, raised, and spent the majority of his life.
In addition to the places where FDR is remembered I have also visited the Four Freedom Park on Roosevelt Island (http://bit.ly/2nmz8Pq), named for his infamous speech of the same name. In fact, at his NYC home the speech is displayed on a gigantic white wall in what use to be the ground floor kitchen. The area was dug out, including several feet underneath, and now is used as an auditorium when the institute has guest speakers.
This tour has been on my to do list (http://bit.ly/29H6zRG) for quite while and despite that length of time I have yearned to visit. The timing just never worked out. But finally I could wait no longer. The visit proved to be worth the wait and then some. I even ended up taking my seven year old nephew who despite the two hours we were there took away so many facts. He was so well behaved, especially considering he was the only child on the tour, the other visitors as well as our guide complimented him. Naturally he had to mention he was working as my intern that day. He was rewarded with pork (http://bit.ly/2obBijH) afterward.
The tour highlights how magnificent the home(s) really are. Even though they are devoid of most of the original personal items and furniture, due to Hunter College’s usage, you can still get a feel for what it was like to had lived there among the Roosevelts. Some of the precious mementos exhibited inside the home are FDR’s desk, a picture of him with his first Cabinet, and other items found in his library like the signed poster for his re-election campaign.
The grandeur of the interior can still be felt. The winding staircases you climb, as you move between sides, all feels very special. Like it was a home built for special people. I felt special just being able to know this treasure existed and getting to visit.
During my tour, my guide showed us this incredibly short video of FDR after he won his first of ultimately four elections. The speech was made in front of a fireplace in this Upper East Side home.
As the Roosevelt’s career trajectory moved upward they spent less and less time in the home which is why they probably sold it.
Eleanor attended the dedication to Roosevelt House when it was reopened by Hunter College in 1943. For many years afterward she continued to visit the home when she was in town and even returned to Hunter College to give lectures. Clearly it was a special place for her. It was the home the Roosevelt’s lived in before FDR got sick, before he began his political career, and before much of their marital troubles started. I like to think it provided many happy memories and a home base for her.
As those of you know who have also visited Springwood, Eleanor had her own home in Hyde Park, New York, near by called Val-Kill Cottage. That too is worthy of a visit.
FDR died in 1945 at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia which remains on my list of must see Roosevelt related attractions. It still operates as a spa and museum.
Eleanor went on to live until she was seventy-eight and passed away in 1962, however coincidentally, in New York City.
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