Wednesday, November 2, 2016


About 90 miles due north of New York City, just north of Poughkeepsie and on the Hudson River, lies Hyde Park, the hometown of the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

With about 22,000 residents, Hyde Park is relatively small compared to some of its famous neighbors, but it's a pretty upscale place, a fitting hometown for one of America's royal families--the Roosevelts.

And there they are, Eleanor and Franklin, waiting to entertain any visitors in their outdoor reception area:
The statue was adapted from a picture taken of the couple in 1933 right here in Hyde Park.

The story of Franklin and Eleanor's connections to Hyde Park begins in 1866 when Franklin's father James bought 640 acres of prime real estate on the Hudson River and built a gray clapboard house on it:

Franklin, born in the second floor bedroom of the family home, was the only child of James and Sara Delano Roosevelt.
The house was named "Springwood," but the Roosevelts usually referred to it as "The Big House" or simply "Hyde Park."
James died in 1900 when Franklin was just 18, and most of the estate was left to Sara. Franklin was very close to his mother, and he agreed to stay in the house with her even after his marriage to Eleanor in 1905. (Oh, lucky Eleanor.) In 1915 they built on to the house, adding two large wings that essentially doubled it in size and doing extensively exterior remodeling. Sara financed the building and controlled all the decorating decisions, which must have been hard for Eleanor, not exactly a passive woman herself. Franklin encouraged Eleanor to build a small cottage on the property where she could spend time with her friends, which she did in the mid-1920s.

When Franklin and Eleanor lived in the White House, they used the Hyde Park home as a retreat. During his presidency, Franklin made more than 200 visits to what became known as the "Summer White House."  Franklin built his presidential library (the nation's first presidential library) on the property not far from the family home in 1941 during his second term as president, the same year that his mother Sara died. He donated the entire estate to the American people in 1943 on the condition that his family would retain a lifetime right to use the property.

These days the family home, the presidential library, Eleanor's cottage Val-Kill, and several other structures on the property are all open to the public. For us, it was almost a full day's worth of sightseeing.

We began in the family home, still decorated as Sara had chosen. Franklin was a collector par excellence, and the home is a virtual museum of his various passions. The entry displays a patchwork of a few of his 2,000 naval-themed paintings and historical cartoons:
How did Franklin navigate these stairs after a bout with polio in 1921 (when he was age 39) left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down?

Ever-practical  Sara had a manually-operated elevator installed in a closet. Pulling himself up and lowering himself back down developed Franklin's upper body strength.

The entry also contains a bronze statue of 29-year-old FDR, created by Paolo Troubetzkoy, a Russian sculptor much better known for his sculptures of Russian royalty. George Bernard Shaw described Troubetzkoy as "the most astonishing sculptor of modern times."
Behind the rather stern image of Franklin is a case filled with some of his boyhood collection of 300 taxidermied birds.

The living room and library contains some of Franklin's 14,000 books, 200 ship models, 1.2 million stamps, and various numbers of coins, banknotes, campaign buttons, and medallions. I wouldn't exactly call him a hoarder, but collector doesn't quite cover it.

The "Dresden Room," named for the origin of some of the porcelain pieces on display, was the formal room where important guests were received:

Autographed portraits of many of those guests--often European royalty--are stacked four layers deep on the grand piano:

Franklin's portrait gets its own spot in the room:

The formal dining room is nice, but by today's McMansion standards, it's downright humble:

Sara Roosevelt called this little room, where she had her breakfast and ordered around her servants, "The Snuggery":
I can't decide what's more appealing: a room called a "snuggery" or servants to order around.

Speaking of servants, they had their own wing, which included eight bedrooms, a "trunk room," a sewing room, and two bathrooms. The number of servants varied but usually included a cook, a butler, a parlor maid, a footman, a laundress, and a kitchen maid.

Franklin's boyhood bedroom has been restored to how it looked when he was a college student coming home from Harvard on the weekends. When Franklin moved in with Eleanor and they had their own sons, whoever was the eldest at home got to sleep in this room:

There are plenty of other bedrooms for the many guests who visited the Roosevelts at Hyde Park. Winston Churchill Slept in This Room. Really. And so did George VI of England:

The original house only had two bathrooms, but the 1915 remodel added SEVEN more, sometimes by adding plumbing to a closet, as was done here:

That must have been a sizable closet, probably a lot like this one:

"The Chintz Room" was used by Franklin and Eleanor until the 1915 expansion of the house. Then it was used for important guests, including Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain:

Eleanor and Franklin moved into this room in 1915. The windows provide a great view of the Hudson River and nearby mountains. After Franklin's bout with polio, Eleanor moved into her own room. Franklin wasn't lonely, however, because his Scottie dog Fala slept on the chair at the foot of his bed.

When Franklin became president, he had a phone installed next to the bed with a direct line to the White House.

Just through the door next to the nightstand is Eleanor's room:

Not very glamorous, it reflects Eleanor's position in this household dominated by her mother-in-law.
No wonder she built a retreat for herself in 1926 in the eastern section of the Roosevelt estate. She named it Val-Kill after the local river and it was to that home--not the family mansion--she returned after Franklin's death in 1945.

In addition to the aforementioned nine bathrooms, the house has 35 rooms. Luckily, I didn't take a picture of each one.

Just two months after he met with Churchill and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, FDR died of a massive brain hemorrhage while recuperating at Warm Springs, Georgia. His body was taken to the White House for the funeral, then transported back to Hyde Park, where he was buried in the rose garden next to his home. (Roosevett means "field of roses" in Dutch.) We didn't see any roses. Perhaps they've been cleared to make the grave site more visible, or maybe we just didn't notice them in their trimmed, barren, wintry state.

While the grave marker is quite large, it is also very plain--a marker that could indicate almost anyone's grave. Franklin's and Eleanor's names are carved on the front. Their burial spots are under the two cleared rectangles in the grass, Franklin's marked very simply with a small American flag.

Ever since I read Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham (see this post), I've been intrigued by the friendship between FDR and Winston Churchill. It was fun to run across this website that includes a video of Churchill visiting Franklin's grave on the first anniversary of Franklin's death. Churchill's wife Clementine and his daughter Sarah accompany him, and Eleanor Roosevelt and her son Elliott are also in the video.

Not far from the family home and just outside the Presidential Library and Museum is a tribute to the friendship of what a plaque describes as these "two great warriors of freedom: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Spencer Churchill."

Busts of the two men face each other across the sidewalk, perhaps symbolic of the Atlantic Ocean that lay between their two countries:
Their faces are lined, their expressions somber, but they hold each other's gaze and are clearly partners rather than adversaries:

I saw this book, Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, in the Presidential Library and Museum bookstore. I've never thought the Roosevelts had an "extraordinary" marriage--mostly because of Franklin's many extramarital affairs. The basic premise of the book, however, is that within and because of their marriage, each accomplished far more than he or she could have achieved alone.

The author, Hazel Rowley, was born in Britain and lived most of her life in Australia before moving to the United States, where she lived for the last six years of her life. She had a PhD in French and wrote some of her other books in French. Although she has won many awards for her writing, Rowley seems an unlikely author for a book on the Roosevelt's marriage, but then, she also wrote a biography of the African American author Richard Wright. I'm looking forward to what she has to say about this famous and infamous marriage.

I've just purchased the book and will come back with a full report after I've read it.


  1. I'm so glad you are doing our trips, site by site. I loved the visit to Hyde Park and I've grown to appreciate the Presidential Libraries first initiated by Roosevelt.

  2. That is crazy with all the paintings.

  3. A "boyhood collection of 300 taxidermied birds"?!? That's not weird at all! Nor is the ability to talk your wife into moving into her mother-in-law's house. Very interesting!