During the toughest days of the Great Depression, with millions of Americans unemployed and the nation losing its confidence, a wheelchair-bound man from Hyde Park, New York, stood tall to secure America’s future. He lifted this nation up again during the darkest years of World War II, with the fate of the free world hanging in the balance. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, perhaps the most influential American of the 20th century, was born here on the second floor of his family’s home, on the east bank of the Hudson River.
Hyde Park is a beautiful hamlet in the Hudson River Valley, 90 miles north of New York City. The town is home to the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, which includes the president’s birthplace, as well as the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor are buried together on the grounds of Springwood, the Dutch colonial-style mansion where FDR grew up.
On a picture-perfect Sunday afternoon, I drive alongside the Hudson River and soon found myself standing inside the Henry Wallace Visitors Center with some 50 other history-lovers of all ages gathered to take the FDR tour. We’re greeted by an affable, funny and knowledgeable park ranger named Robin Carter. He fills us in on the basics: FDR was born in 1882 and won four presidential elections in a row from 1932 until his death in April 1945. He contracted polio at about age 40 and never recovered the use of his legs. We learn a few family facts about the history of the Roosevelt clan (their roots in New York extend far back before the Revolution), and then Ranger Carter walks us over to the entrance of the family home.
Springwood is a massive, gorgeous home with classical columns and appealing sea-green shutters. As we enter the front door, we’re instantly surrounded by naval history. Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the navy under President Woodrow Wilson. Cousin Teddy Roosevelt had held the same job before becoming president in 1901. Paintings and prints of famous U.S. naval battles, from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and beyond, cover the walls, as do prints of prominent American naval heroes such as David Porter, Stephen Decatur and Oliver Hazard Perry.
Someone in our tour group points out the lack of wheelchair ramps in the house. Ranger Carter tells us that FDR didn’t want any ramps, that he moved between floors by pulling himself up or down on a dumbwaiter. The device, I find, can barely fit a wheelchair, and FDR had to pull himself up or down by using a thick rope tied to a pulley. I’m exhausted just thinking about how difficult this process must have been. Roosevelt, the ranger says, had the upper body strength of a wrestler, and looking at this ancient dumbwaiter, I have no doubt that he did.
Franklin was James and Sara Roosevelt’s only child, and his mother was displeased when he married a distant cousin named Eleanor in 1905. On the second floor of Springwood, Eleanor and her mother-in-law had connecting bedrooms. Later on, says Ranger Carter, Sara bought the young couple a Manhattan townhouse. Unfortunately, Sara also moved in with her son and new daughter-in-law. The couple, nevertheless, had six children in 10 years, and the ever-present Sara seemed to like nothing better than loudly proclaiming Eleanor’s shortcomings as a wife and mother. When I asked our guide if this living arrangement was “a little too close for comfort,” he just laughed and said Eleanor never felt fully at home or in charge of her own household.
Based on my half-hour walk through Springwood, I gathered that the Roosevelt family didn’t seem interested in conspicuous consumption or showy displays of wealth, unlike their ostentatiously rich neighbors the Vanderbilts. The furniture in the house is simple, solid and stolid. Not exactly an ideal locale for elegant balls or fashionable dinner parties. Its guest bedroom on the second floor has no frills outside of a bed and table, and this is where FDR’s closest political adviser Harry Hopkins frequently slept. Springwood is cold and dark in winter, but the fields behind the house are breathtaking green expanses where horses roamed in Roosevelt’s youth.
After Ranger Carter waves his goodbyes, many of us walkover to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, the first-ever U.S. presidential library, built while Roosevelt was still in office. In an exhibit tracing FDR’s early years, I look at his report cards from Groton prep school (in Massachusetts) and Columbia Law School and discover that he was a mediocre student at best. In his boyhood photos, he almost never cracks a smile, probably due to his mother’s strict parenting.
The president’s Oval Office desk is set up as he kept it (a fervent Democrat, FDR had wooden donkey figurines on his desk, probably used as paperweights), as well as his Map Room, where he communicated with his military commanders and allies. On display are many of the famous photos with Roosevelt sitting beside Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at international conferences that decided the fate of the free world.
You’ll get your fill of campaign buttons, military recruiting posters, newspapers from the Depression and war years, and newsreels where a smiling FDR addresses the American people in his inimitable voice. There’s more here about the New Deal than anyone could possibly absorb at one viewing. I loved the old wooden radios, and listening to FDR’s terrific radio speeches. Also on display is Roosevelt’s dark blue 1936 Ford Phaeton convertible, with its special hand controls for driving.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s often controversial, progressive political activism gets recognition here too. Eleanor championed civil rights long before the 1960s, and this made her unpopular with many Americans, including Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who saw her as a Communist dupe. Eleanor’s many books are on display, as well as the Smith & Corona typewriter upon which she wrote her influential newspaper and magazine columns.
Hyde Park is a must-see for anyone interested in learning about the life and legacy of one of our greatest presidents. Every December, Springwood is decorated for the holiday season, and a free holiday evening is planned.