One year ago Helen (adorable wife) and I were in Bryson City, NC to raft the Nantahala River and explore the area a little bit, and while there, we entered a used bookstore where I picked up a copy of No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book, published in 1994, detailed the complex relationship between President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, and how they, as a couple, dealt with the enormous task of bringing America out of the Depression and on to victory in World War II.
In Mrs. Goodwin’s account of both the problems facing the President and the difficulties within the marriage, she often referred to the fact that FDR returned to his family estate in Hyde Park, NY to renew and refresh his spirits in order to undertake the challenges that were always in front of him. Reading the book made the FDR Presidential Library and Val-Kill, Mrs. Roosevelt’s home, a must-see on our trip to the northeast. My intent here is not to recite facts or to summarize events in history, there are thousands of volumes written on President Roosevelt and his place in history, but I do want to give my impression of the place FDR felt so passionate about and returned to as often as possible.
We were staying at the guest lodge at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY. It was a beautiful day for a drive up the Hudson Valley to Hyde Park which is about an hour away. The drive from West Point took us north along US 9 and adjacent to the Hudson River. Coming out of West Point, we followed the highway up a mountain on one side of the valley to an overlook where we had a spectacular view of the campus at West Point, the Hudson River, and a passing train taking passengers from New York City to Hyde Park and on to Albany. We continued on US 9 through Newburgh and Fishkill (great name) to Hyde Park. We also passed by the Culinary Institute of America where we intended to stop for lunch, but our schedule didn’t work out to make that happen.
We arrived at the Library around 10:00 am to find a parking lot that was nearly full. Nevertheless, we were able to park and got out of the car on what was an incredibly bright, sunny day. This was the first day of our trip that could actually be described as crisp. We entered the Library and, using our National Park Senior Pass, signed up for a tour of Springwood, the Roosevelt home. (For more about the Senior Pass click here). While we waited, we went into the New Deal Museum Store to have our National Park Passports stamped, then viewed the many displays about the life of FDR in the large Library entry hall.
Soon a tall, elderly gentleman volunteer called for everyone waiting for a tour (about 50 people altogether) to gather around a floor map in the center of the entry hall to begin the tour. He began by pointing out various points of the estate using the map which consisted of colored marble tiles inlaid into a white marble floor. This gentleman was well spoken and it was obvious that this was not his first tour. It was also obvious that this gentleman was an admirer of President Roosevelt and he was able to convey to us Roosevelt’s love for his home and the joy he derived from being there. Admittedly, Springwood and the area around it is beautiful, and I can only imagine how lovely it was in FDR’s boyhood days before traffic rolled up the highway and commercial buildings sprang up close by.
Our introduction ended and we walked out of the library through a grove of huge White Oak trees to the Roosevelt home. Our guide pointed out the at least one of the trees was probably planted by FDR himself. Roosevelt loved his trees and, according to our guide, always gave his occupation as “tree farmer” even while serving as President.
We stopped at the front of the home and were given a short summary of the several renovations made to the home by FDR and his mother, Sarah, over the years that transformed the home from a large farmhouse, built around 1800, into a grand manor. Standing in front of the home, it was impossible not to notice the ramp built on one side of the front steps to facilitate entry by someone with physical challenges like those that faced FDR.
We were led into the front room or main hall as it was called by our guide. The room seemed dark to me, but I suppose that light was kept to a minimum to avoid damage to the many artifacts there. Flash cameras were not allowed. Our guide continued his presentation, this time about the items before us. The walls were covered with paintings of ships and art related to naval history. We were told that FDR had a lifetime interest in ships and the sea. In one corner, behind a bronze sculpture of a 29-year-old Franklin Roosevelt, was a glass-front cabinet containing FDR’s collection of stuffed birds which we learned were shot by young Franklin on the estate and numbered in the hundreds.
After the presentation in the main hall, we were divided into two groups. One group was allowed to go up the narrow, winding steps to the second floor and the other group was free to explore the main floor down to the living room. No one was permitted on the third floor due to fire regulations, and on the main floor, we were only allowed to stand in the doorway of the dining room, kitchen and formal living room.
Throughout both floors were numerous ramps, rails, and an elevator placed to accommodate a President with paralyzed legs. In the dining room, it was noted that FDR’s chair was always angled to the right in order to make it easier for him to move about or to leave the table.
On the second floor were the many bedrooms used by the family as well as by guests such as King George VI, and Sir Winston Churchill. It was humbling to think about what was discussed in these rooms as these two men planned the strategy for defeating our enemies in World War II. The room where FDR was born was marked prominently as was another room named “The Snuggery”, where Sarah Roosevelt was served breakfast then listed tasks to be performed by the staff that day. I found it all to be tremendously fascinating, but, unfortunately, it was time to move to the library and Val-Kill, so we made our way along the narrow hallway and down the back steps to the rear of the home. From the top of the back steps, you could see the where the land sloped down to the Hudson River–the view that FDR loved the most.
From the home, we walked by the stables built by FDR’s father, James, then through the rose garden and beside the marble tomb which held the President’s body. Helen and I were the only guests inside the garden at that moment, which seemed somewhat out of the ordinary because Mr. Roosevelt loved to have large groups of people around him at all times. I felt certain that others would be along soon to give him more company. Inside the rose garden, the roses had long since spent their blooms, but the Zinnias were out in all their glory to give the gravesite an uplifting feel–something akin to FDR’s optimistic personality.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum has undergone a recent remodeling and the result is an awesome experience for the visitor. There is an overwhelming number of displays–3D, visual, multi-media, old newsreels, books, letters, and artifacts, all attesting to the entire life of this accomplished man. There is too much to see and do in one visit, and unfortunately, one visit is all the time we had. Nevertheless, the Library is well organized in a chronological order, so the visitor is able to walk through it beginning with the early years, through the Depression, and end up with the events that led to victory in World War II and Roosevelt’s death.
The most enjoyable aspect of the library for me was to sit through many of the old newsreel footage detailing victories in various battles of the War.
Again, it is a lot to see, and I encourage anyone to take it in if at all possible.
Following our tour of the Presidential Library and Museum, we made the short drive of about a mile to the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, known to many as Val-Kill Cottage.
As with her husband, volumes have been written about Mrs. Roosevelt and her efforts to cast a light on the struggles of many throughout America and the world. Nevertheless, until I read Mrs. Goodwin’s book (noted above), I did not know that Mrs. Roosevelt had a home of her own in Hyde Park. We took the opportunity to learn about it.
Driving to Val-Kill required us to leave the Library parking lot and cross the main highway, and take a short drive to a much smaller parking lot beside a lovely stream and small pond. From the lot, we walked along a path around the small stone cottage to the larger Val-Kill Cottage, Mrs. Roosevelt’s home.
The contrast between the stately home and grounds at Springwood and the small, quiet, quaintness of Val-Kill was immediately apparent and immense at the same time. The stream itself from which Val-Kill derived its name, lent a calming effect to all of the surroundings. The impact was even more profound on a day so beautiful as this. Springwood, though beautiful in its own right, still spoke of the clamor surrounding the life of a President seeking escape while dealing with the world at war. Val-Kill was unparalleled solitude.
We entered the office in Val-Kill cottage, presented our National Park Senior Pass, then went into a theater in the Playhouse to begin the tour. We watched a 15-minute film giving the details of how Val-Kill came to be and of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life there. At the end of the film we were given a short presentation by a tour guide, then led to the home.
The small stone cottage on the property was finished in 1925. It was the suggestion of Franklin Roosevelt as a place where Eleanor and two of her friends could enjoy this lovely section of the Roosevelt property year round. Eleanor would spend weekends and holidays there when her husband could not come to Hyde Park. Also, she did not have to be accompanied by the President’s mother as she felt obligated to do if she were to stay in the larger home at Springwood. She could be alone if she chose, even though her two friends lived there for more than 20 years. On this day, we were not able to tour the small cottage due to a shortage of staff to guide us.
The large cottage was built in 1926 as a small factory where area residents could earn a living making replica furniture and weavings. The factory was closed in 1936 due to the Depression, and Mrs. Roosevelt converted the building into two apartments for herself and her secretary Malvina “Tommy” Thompson. After the President died, Springwood was turned over to the US Government, but Mrs. Roosevelt kept Val-Kill, the only home she ever owned, and lived there until her death in 1962.
Val-Kill cottage was entered from a door which to many would be the rear of the home. We were told that this allowed Mrs. Roosevelt to come and go without disturbing the two ladies who lived in the small cottage. We were then in the apartment of Mrs. Thompson. It was small with a kitchen for “Tommie” off to one side. The apartment was simply furnished and had a few small pictures on the wall. Our guide described the decorating style as “eclectic”.
On the other end of the house was the area used by Mrs. Roosevelt. There was a small kitchen, a dining area, and a larger room where she entertained guests. The dining room had a large table set in Buffet style, the serving method Mrs. Roosevelt preferred. We were told that Mrs. Roosevelt almost never cooked, and when she entertained, the offerings were simple and usually the same on every occasion.
The larger room was stuffed with furniture of various styles with no real consistency or prevailing theme. Again, “eclectic” was used as an overriding description. Nevertheless, this room was used to host many important world leaders of the time, and there were photographs of those meetings and events displayed throughout the room. Our tour guide did a great job of passing along stories taken from those times, including the story of a young John F. Kennedy who came to seek her endorsement of him for the Presidency which she was reluctant to give.
From that room, we were led to the screen porch and given the details of how Val-Kill was sold by her children, then returned to the US Government and preserved through a bill signed by President Carter in 1977.
Our tour was a history lesson not to be forgotten. When one has the opportunity to reflect on the life and times of the Roosevelts, it matters not whether one is in perfect alignment ideologically with them, differs entirely, or sits somewhere in between. What matters is that one cannot deny that this is a couple who faced enormous challenges both physically and politically, (and to some degree, emotionally) and met them with tenacity and great courage, while maintaining an overwhelming display of hope and optimism. I left Springwood and Val-Kill with a greater understanding of where the hope and optimism came from. I’m so glad we went but it was now time to go Easin’ Along back to West Point.