The Roosevelts’ lineage and history are intrinsically tied to New York’s narrative. Most notable are the legacies of Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor and Franklin Delanor Roosevelt. The Roosevelts’ many public contributions, private property endowments, and pioneering governmental policy work, all serve to immortalize them as one of the most eminent names in US history. In exploring some of their properties around Manhattan, I first visited Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace, he is the only US President born in New York.
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was born in the house pictured above, in 1858, located at 28 East 20th Street in Manhattan. His family lived in this house until 1872. The original home was completely demolished in 1916, but in 1919 the property was purchased to erect a replica of Roosevelt’s birthplace. Roosevelt was adamant against having a “shrine” constructed in his honor, however his relatives only acquiesced this request until he passed in 1919. The reconstructed home, which is made to look like the interior design of the house during the years of 1865-1872, was donated to the National Park Service in 1963.
The National Park Service tour guide provided me a brief snapshot of the 26th President of the United States’ childhood. Teddy was one of four children and due to severe ailments such as allergies and asthma, he spent most of childhood confined indoors and in this house. To fill his time, he consumed mass amounts of natural history books. He even called his collection of books and artifacts from his family’s travels in his room, the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History”. This zest for ancient history was very much fueled by Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., Teddy’s father, one of the founders of New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 1869. Last October, the museum reopened the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda after a two-year conservation of the murals.
The house stores many interesting pieces, taxidermy and original artifacts from the Roosevelt’s time in this property. The tour guide pointed out pieces of furniture that were unique to Teddy, such as the velvet ottoman placed by the fireplace just for him. The velvet chair was there for him due to the horse-hair covered chairs that were very irritating to his skin. The gas powered chandeliers and lamps in the salon also aggravated his asthma. His father believed that the cure-all for Teddy’s asthma was exercise. So a gymnasium was installed on the second floor, off of the nursery porch. You can see more images of the interior here. The Roosevelts also rented Wave Hill House in the Bronx for a couple of summers, which may have inspired Teddy’s later contributions to the conservation of natural parkland.
Jumping to the other famous Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor, they were residents of Manhattan as well. While Franklin Delano shares the same name and also became an American president, it was Eleanor who was more closely related to Theodore Roosevelt. Eleanor’s father, Elliott Roosevelt, was Teddy’s younger brother, and FDR was Teddy’s fifth cousin. In 1908, as a wedding present from FDR’s mother, Eleanor and FDR moved into their house located at 49 East 65th Street. It was largely during their residence here, that the most significant events and political policy contributions by Eleanor and FDR were made. Roosevelt recovered from his diagnosis of polio here in 1921, began his ascent into politics as a New York senator, was elected President and inked the New Deal. Eleanor was very involved with the Women’s Trade Union League at this time and forging equality in women’s rights.
Photo courtesy of Hunter College.
Architect Charles Platt designed the building to have two identical residences joined with a single entrance (FDR’s mother lived in the adjacent residence). In later memoirs from Eleanor, she lamented the first few years of living in the house next to her mother in law as she never felt like it was a place of her own. Throughout the property there are interconnecting doors between the parlor rooms, reception areas and the main sitting areas. The six story building has a facade made predominantly of brick and limestone. The house was acquired by Hunter College in 1942 and became a New York City landmark in 1973.
Photo courtesy of Hunter College.
Unfortunately the house decayed over the years and it wasn’t until the President of Hunter College, Jennifer Raab, secured funding for a remodel and new additions to the house in the early 2000s, that the house was under proper care. The library was converted into a museum and seminar room, the reception rooms were opened up as spaces for classes, receptions and presentations, and the upper floors became offices as well as apartments for special visiting scholars. The remodel was completed in 2010 and became the home of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College. While the school is only open to students and staff of Hunter’s College, you can contact the school to set up a tour with an advance reservation. The website for the college provides great background on the history of the house during the Roosevelts’ residence, the Hunter College acquirement and the remodel.
The City of New York has honored Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s legacy with FDR Four Freedoms Park on Staten Island, which opened last fall. Read about more presidential haunts from Grant to Obama.