Saturday, February 4, 2012

Back to that president

This is where I started to go two weeks ago, and then got sidetracked by the house next door (see the post below). The image above shows the east facade of Springwood, the family home of Franklin Roosevelt in Hyde Park, NY. I don't want to go through the whole National Park Service tour here, but the highlights that stuck in my mind include the following: FDR's mother owned the place until 3 years before the president's death; it's the only house where an American president was both born and buried; the property still covers 900 acres; and with very few subtractions, the interior looks exactly the way it did the day FDR died.

I once wrote that for me blogging was like keeping a diary and leaving it on a bus for strangers to read. Who reads it (or why) is a mystery, since what interests me doesn't always interest other people. In the case of Springwood, I find the manner of its transformation - from ho-hum Victorian country house to swank society mansion - to be really fascinating. In 1915 the distinguished firm of Hoppin and Koen simply tacked the classical fieldstone and stucco facade you see above onto a friendly, kind of pokey, not very impressive, balloon-frame, Victorian structure from the mid-19th century. What looks like a fine early 20th century mansion is a stage prop. Only the southern wing is as grand inside as its exterior suggests.

The southern wing contains an elegant library and enjoys a distant view, which no doubt looks better in the summer. In Roosevelt's day I doubt the trees would have been allowed to obscure the river to the extent they do now.

Here are 2 more direct views of the southern wing. The ground level library opens onto that superb porch. Three bedrooms are on the second floor - FDR's on the right, his mother's in the middle, and his wife's on the left. Much has been written about the president's peculiar private life, and you can read it someplace else. The second image is a closer view of an exterior stair erected by the Parks Department - and being reconstructed at the time of my visit - as an exit route at the end of the house tour. I don't know who came up with this nutty idea, to welcome visitors through the front door, and shoo them out through a window upstairs. More to the point is the shape of the original house, visible on the left.

This photo was posted in the carriage house and shows - or strongly hints at - the former look of the place.

Here's a better look at that exterior exit stair. I'm sorry, but there must be a less insane way to end a house tour.

Here's the river facade of the original house, looking pretty much intact - which it pretty much is.

These vintage interior views are quite accurate today. Mrs. Roosevelt Sr. - we were reminded repeatedly that this was her house - had a Victorian love of clutter. The interior finish of the parlor in the first image above - scale, moldings, fireplace, flooring - was no Hoppin and Koen design. The architects enlarged the entrance hall (second view above), but left the Victorian staircase, probably at the insistence of the president's mother. The big library is another story; its fashionably luxe look goes completely with its exterior.

The stable is intact, although I understand a part of it was rebuilt after a fire. The date on the tower says 1886, when the future president was four.

Stable details.

The Park Service has been a wonderful steward of the Roosevelt place but, like many other historic house operators, it has insisted on depriving modern visitors of the original approach to the house. FDR didn't scuttle onto his property via a side road; he drove through the original main gate and we should too. A great deal of the impact of a big old house stems from the approach. The Roosevelt Cinema, across the street from the (now closed) main gate, admittedly lends a piquant touch.

The drive to the house, flanked by an allee of immense trees, has been allowed to lawn over. The Park Service keeps it passable, although why the traffic lane is now off center is one more institutional mystery.

I don't know if the Roosevelts were always this happy, but it's a nice note on which to leave them.


  1. Well, I for one am glad that you leave your diary open on the bus from time to time.

    I'll just quickly agree that Springwood is a compelling place for so many reasons, on so many levels (a wonderful example of a family seat that grew over time, simultaneously dumpy and grand, and as the home of a very great man, whose legacy is under attack by the forces of nuttiness, meanness and irrationality that seem to have overtaken 49.5 per cent of the country).

    I could stay on that soapbox forever, but you have also touched on some of the things that make me absolutely CRAZIEST about the historic house business, and National Park Service stewardship in particular (I should mention here that I happen to chair the board of an historic house museum myself, so do not speak from a completely uninformed place). When I first visited Springwood years ago, my jaw dropped at the exit strategy. Surely in a house that size, with more than one stair, that could not possibly have been the only option. And ditto the drive. One should absolutely experience the property as much as possible as the owners did, driving through that allee, and THEN being routed over to the visitor center and parking. In fairness, local fire codes, etc. may play a part in this---modern code is often written based on firetruck access and gate width---although I seriously suspect that the mindset of the park bureaucrats are more at play here. And don't get me started about the mercury vapor lights, suitable to a mall parking lot, that dot the grounds of the Vanderbilt site up the road...

  2. PS, sorry the above is so long---I realize that I'm preaching to the choir, but you really touched a nerve (and here I add that at our historic site, I actually caused the original entrance drive to be re-opened, and the 'new' visitor entrance drive to become the exit only.


  3. I visited the Roosevelt (andVanderbilt) estates many times as a child. My favorite story about FDR's house was told by the actress Katherine Hepburn, who was invited to a picnic there while King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain were guests of the Roosevelts. Kate arrived by airplane (probably Howard Hughes' plan; she was dating him at the time) which landed in the shallows of the Hudson River, so she had to wade ashore. The picnic was already in progress, some distance from the house, but Kate begged to go inside as she figured it was the only time she might have the chance (most President's homes were not yet museums at the time). She went in to use the bathroom. When asked to describe the house, she said "a mess, but fascinating".

  4. Agree with The Down East Dilettante; I read his blog too (when he does blog!). Those statues are horrifying! Who thought that up? They'll give me nightmares for weeks, thanks!

  5. I wish I could see this elegant library you've mentioned. I prefer reading in libraries, as I always find a peace of mind. BTW, I was awestruck by the pictures of those houses you posted. Some of those are pretty old, but are still pretty clear!

  6. I can't count the number of times I toured this house, as it was an annual field trip for our school. There used to be a liquor store in Hyde Park (perhaps it's still there) called "Liquorama," and I remember once drawing the ire of Sister Mary Agnes when I raised my hand on the bus and asked if that was the place where Eleanor Roosevelt bought her gin.

    I agree about the original driveway and its being allowed to go to seed this way. It's particularly sad because the guides at Springwood used to tell the story of how FDR, after being stricken with polio, made it his goal to walk (with crutches) from his house to the end of that driveway, and how he kept at it, struggling with the job every single day for almost a year, even though most days he passed out somewhere along the drive and had to be carried back to the house by a servant, until he was able to get to the gates on his own steam. Assuming this story was accurate, that driveway deserves better treatment.

    And this is neither her nor there, but I remember watching a television interview with the actress Jane Wyatt - the mom from "Father Knows Best" - and she mentioned that she was introduced to her future husband at a dinner party the Roosevelts were throwing at Springwood. The actress was apparently a Dutchess County neighbor, plus I think her mother, Euphemia Van Rensselaer Waddington Wyatt, might have been related to Mrs. Roosevelt as well.

    Mt security word was "sadizat." How sadizat?

  7. Dahhhling what an interesting post. I enjoyed it very much & particularly liked the photo tour.. wish there had been more photos of the interiors.

  8. Hi, Something is wrong with your Poughkeepsie post! I keep getting a "page does not exist" message. Please fix this; the post looks so interesting.

  9. Poughkeepsie post is coming Thursday. Thanks for asking.

  10. Great blog! I've been researching the history of the house, and its 1915 redesign/renovation. Apparently, the north wing wasn't intended to be grand. The ground level was intended as a big playroom, and servants quarters on the second level. All the servant's rooms seem to have their own windows which, I think, is a huge improvement on the usual servants quarters for east coast mansions, and an improvement on the airless and hot top-floor servants quarters in British mansions. The redesign, not architecturally brilliant by any measure, it reflects the humanity of SDR & FDR.

    By the way, the bedrooms for the family were re-organized after FDR's polio. And Eleanor's bedroom was often (perhaps most often) used for family guests as she stayed mostly at her Val-Kill cottage when at Hyde Park. Just saying.