|Should you go?|
|Time spent||88 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||
This 1934 pitcher and mug set featuring caricatures of FDR and other Democrats, created by the Stangl Pottery Company following the repeal of prohibition. Cheers!
Roosevelt House on East 65th Street is Hunter College’s public policy institute. Lots of schools name places after people who gave them money or famous alums (or both!) so you might just think, “Oh the Roosevelts bought naming rights back in the day.” Or, I mean, it’s Roosevelt, why not name something policy-related after any or all of them? But all those hypotheses are wrong!
For nearly a quarter of a century FDR and Eleanor lived there as their place in New York City. Actually it’s two houses designed to look like one from the outside. Franklin and Eleanor lived to the right, while FDR’s mom lived to the left. While few historic furnishings remain, the house’s internal fabric is similar enough that you can get a sense of the space the Roosevelts occupied. And it’s open for public tours on Saturdays.
For some reason, Hunter keeps this quiet. I stumbled on to the place late; it was not on my initial list of museums. I think this is the most under-the-radar historic house museum in Manhattan. And I’ve been to all of them. At least, I think I have.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in New York City
When Franklin and Eleanor married in 1905, Sara Delano Roosevelt, FDR’s mom, gave them a drawing of a townhouse as a wedding gift. It took a while to deliver on the real-world equivalent, and it’s unclear whether she specified she’d be their extremely close neighbor. But still, pretty neat wedding present.
The Roosevelts moved into the Charles Platt-designed house in 1908. They already had Anna and James, and had a further three surviving children while living there. The house feels big by New York standards, though small by modern McMansion ones. And maybe not so big for a family of 7 plus assorted staff.
Each of the paired houses featured a teensy elevator, installed mainly for staff use initially. They turned out to be extremely important once FDR contracted polio in 1921. His wheelchair, designed to be as small and discreet as possible, could fit.
The Roosevelts’ library is still a library today, and contains an array of interesting Rooseveltiana, including a complete set of travel guides published by a Works Progress Administration program to provide work for unemployed writers. Today, I guess, the government would just give ’em a blog.
Among other historic events, the Roosevelts were living in the house when FDR won the presidency in 1932. FDR’s first radio address to the nation (also recorded for newsreel distribution by Fox Movietone News, which I can’t help but find ironic) was broadcast from the drawing room.
The House and Hunter
Franklin and Eleanor were living in the White House when Sara Delano Roosevelt died in 1941. By that point, it seemed unlikely that their path would take them back to NYC, and so they decided to put the house/houses on the market. Hunter approached the family with an offer, and, generously, the Roosevelts both cut their asking price and donated some money to the school. In exchange, the house was named the “Sara Delano Roosevelt Memorial House for Religious and Racial Tolerance.”
Hunter used the house primarily as a student center, filling a vital need to build community in what was then an all-girl school that specialized in training teachers.
As a part of a not-very-wealthy academic institution, the house was hard used and ill repaired. Eventually in the 1990s the school had to close it; conditions inside were becoming downright dangerous.
Fortunately, Hunter admins and donors realized the importance of the house to the college, the city, and the country. The school raised nearly $20 million for a lengthy rehab. The restoration was bad in terms of the historicity of the place, permanently merging the two houses into a single space. But it was good in the sense that we might otherwise have lost the house entirely. As happened with Teddy Roosevelt’s torn down then rebuilt birthplace.
Should You Visit Roosevelt House?
Today if anyone thinks of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s residence at all, they likely think of Hyde Park, the estate north of New York that houses FDR’s presidential library. That’s absolutely worth a visit; Roosevelt House in Manhattan pales by comparison.
But Hunter’s public policy institute was the Roosevelts’ city home as they were growing their family; as Franklin suffered and recovered from polio; and as FDR and Eleanor plotted out the beginnings of a political career that would lead to arguably America’s greatest presidency.
So what if they don’t have the sofas or the lamps or the bric-a-brac. They have the place, and places matter. The guided tour was terrific, too. Rachel, a doctoral student when not guiding people around Roosevelt House, told the story with wit, warmth, and intellect, augmented by photos and videos in the various rooms to help bring the Roosevelts back to life.
If you’re at all interested in 20th century American history, presidential lives and times, or how wealthy New Yorkers lived in the early 1900s, Roosevelt House is well worth a visit.
|Address||47-49 East 65th Street, Manhattan|
|Cost||General Admission: $10 suggested donation|