|Should you go?|
|Time spent||61 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||In 1912, this 50-page speech, folded in Teddy Roosevelt’s overcoat pocket, helped slow a bullet fired by a would-be assassin on the way to a campaign event in Milwaukee. Bullet lodged in his side, Roosevelt proceeded to give his 90-minute speech, extemporaneously, before seeing a doctor. He later said of being shot, “It is a trade risk, which every prominent public man ought to accept as a matter of course.” Brevity may be the soul of wit, but verbosity can block a bullet.|
The first thing you should know about the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace is that it’s a fake. Artificial. Teddy Roosevelt was decidedly not born in the master bedroom of that house in 1858, nor did he spend his formative childhood years in that building.
The family moved uptown and sold the original brownstone in that location, TR’s actual birthplace, in 1873. In 1916, in a fit of early twentieth century anti-sentimentality, developers demolished it in in favor of a retail building. Then, after the great man died, sentimentality won out. A group of dedicated Rooseveltians bought the property, reproducing the brownstone in its original location. The current building opened as a museum in 1923.
So where does that leave us? In a reproduction of a mid-19th-century upper-class brownstone, with some additional exhibit space in what was formerly the house next door. The Park Service keeps the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace furnished as it would’ve been around the Civil War, including pieces of furniture and art from the original. A ranger-led guided tour takes visitors to five rooms. The guide won’t necessarily volunteer the fact that the house is a fake, though they (hopefully) won’t deny it if you ask.
Way back at the start of this project, at Hamilton Grange, I asked rhetorically whether it was better to have an authentic house that’s moved from its original location, or a reproduction house built in the exact spot of the original. I continue to prefer to be within walls that once enclosed A.Ham or “T.Roo.”
Your feelings regarding “authenticity” may vary. But I certainly want to know whether what I’m seeing is original or not.
Call Me Teedie
Once you get past that, this place tells the story of President Theodore Roosevelt’s early life. His family called him “Teedie,” not “Teddy.” We tend to think of Teedie/Teddy/T.Roo as a rugged outdoorsman and military hero (charging up San Juan Hill), but in his youth Teedie had asthma, and was, in modern parlance, a total nerd. Home schooled, he collected animals (living and dead), studied taxidermy, and read a lot. He dreamed of becoming a scientist.
In short, you’d never take him for presidential material.
The tour takes you through three rooms on the main floor of the house: the formal parlor, the library (where the kids would gather for story time with their dad), and the dining room, where kids and adults dined together — unusual for the time.
The tour then goes upstairs to visit the master bedroom (where Roosevelt was (not) born). It concludes with the kids’ nursery/bedroom, which, until the family added another floor later, sounds like it was really crowded.
It all paints a vivid picture of the life of a prosperous, old-school, upper-class family in mid 19th century Manhattan — and a kid who would grow into a president.
Don’t Miss the Video
In addition to the house tour, the Birthplace offers a small exhibit space in the basement, as well as a tiny gift shop. The displays look at Roosevelt’s family — parents, siblings, and his own wives and children. They also feature some memorabilia from his political career. However, the exhibits need a refresh — many cases are empty, or house just quotations from Roosevelt. There’s exactly one interactive exhibit, a touchscreen that lets you scroll through a collection of Rooseveltian political cartoons.
Despite its sparseness, I did learn some fun facts about Roosevelt. To wit:
- Roosevelt was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, for negotiating the end to the Russo-Japanese War.
- Roosevelt also officially named the White House, “The White House.”
That brings us to “Teedie,” a video dramatization of young TR’s life. Directed by Edmond Levy in 1985, it looks and sounds very much like a product of its time. It hits on all the high points:
- Roosevelt’s nerdiness,
- His flirtation with taxidermy,
- Getting his first pair of spectacles,
- His father’s dramatic call to him to “build your body,”
- A traumatic encounter with bullies in a carriage on the way to Maine, and
- Some bare-chested, bare-knuckled childhood pugilism (abetted by loudly cheering parents and cook).
That last, climactic bit probably seemed perfectly normal in the 19th century or the benighted 1980s, but raises eyebrows in our more wimpy and child-coddling era.
So the National Park Service has some work to do on the didactic parts of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. The exhibits fall short of what they should be. While part of me hopes they never replace the video, they need to augment it with something more contemporary.
Should You Visit Teedie’s House?
Even knowing it’s not “authentic,” visiting Teddy Roosevelt’s childhood home recalls a time when the notion that anyone can become president was a positive thing. (If you want authenticity in a 19th century townhouse, check out the Merchant’s House Museum nearby.)
The Roosevelts had a family philosophy of service to others and to the community. The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace argues that from a childhood steeped in this philosophy grew the future president’s belief that government could play a positive role: keeping corporations in check, ensuring safe food and water, and protecting the environment and natural resources.
I left there slightly dispirited at the state of the political world I live in, but also slightly hopeful that we might see leaders like TR again someday. For that spark of optimism, I deem this place worth a visit.
|Address||28 East 20th Street, Manhattan|
|Cost||General Admission: Free|