By Linda Lotridge Levin
Rhode Island Library Report
Franklin Delano Roosevelt revolutionized the American presidency in so many ways: He is the only president to be elected to four terms; his presidency marked the beginning of what today is called “big government” with the expansion of federal agencies and the adoption of a number of social insurance and welfare programs, most notably Social Security; he was the first president to use the airwaves on a regular basis to connect with the citizens; and he was the first president to have his own library to house his papers and memorabilia.
FDR’s political career did not begin when he was elected president. Before World War I he was a state senator in New York; he then served as President Woodrow Wilson’s under secretary of the Navy, and after his partial recovery from polio, he became governor of New York in 1928. Four years later he was elected president of the United States.
By 1938 Roosevelt had collected a prodigious amount of materials – speeches, letters, memos, and, of course, clippings from newspapers and magazines. An avid reader and a collector of books and stamps, he enjoyed acquiring curios and bits of memorabilia, which he often placed on his desk in the White House, periodically replacing them with new pieces.
No existing institution, not even the Library of Congress, had room for it all, and FDR could not bear to think of breaking it up.
Mindful of the size and unusual scope of his collections, he admitted, “Future historians will curse as well as praise me.”
So, he decided he needed a repository for everything. It would be on the grounds of his childhood home in Hyde Park, New York, a place he cherished and visited as often as he could throughout his presidency.
He asked his friend Samuel Eliot Morison, a Harvard professor and a Pulitzer Prize-winning naval historian, to help him organize the building’s contents. Otherwise, Roosevelt wrote, “this material will be available (only) in scattered form – throughout libraries and private collections.”
The president’s concern was that this would hinder future scholars attempting to write accurate and complete histories of his life. (At that time, once the president left office, his papers and memorabilia went to his survivors, the Library of Congress or other public institutions.)
The President and his mother, Sara (she owned the property), set aside sixteen acres on the estate, close by the family’s home on the Hudson River a short drive north of Poughkeepsie. He hired an architect to design the building, but supervised the construction himself as often as he could get away from Washington.
It was FDR’s friends who raised the money to construct the library-museum, setting a precedent for later presidents looking to finance their libraries. In the end, 28,000 people collected $376,000. That figure in today’s dollars would be more than $6 million, which is roughly what
Ground was broken on September 14, 1939, and the library-museum was dedicated on June 30, 1941, just five months before the United States entered World War II. FDR then donated the building and its contents to the federal government, to be administered by the National Archives.
The lovely little two-story building is built of Hudson Valley fieldstone with a steeply sloping roof, a style similar to that of the Dutch Colonial buildings in the area.
Originally the library was a long rectangle, but in 1972 additions were built on either side to house the papers of FDR’s wife, Eleanor. With only a few modest changes, the library and museum remained unchanged until the winter of 2009, when it closed for extensive interior renovations to bring the archives and museum up to National Archives standards for the long-term preservation of historic collections.
This included new drainage, plumbing, and roofing systems and new electrical, security, fire protection, and other systems. Fittingly, for a building designed by a president who spent almost half his life in a wheelchair, the renovations made the building fully accessible to visitors in wheelchairs.
A public ceremony rededicated the completed project on June 30, 2013.
to find out what is in there.
But a visit is mandatory if you really want to explore the life and presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The museum’s newly configured exhibits were financed with $6 million in private funds that were raised for the renovation by the Roosevelt Institute, the Library’s private, nonprofit partner.
The museum, according to its website, is “immersive,” allowing visitors, both children and adults, to use touch screens to “listen” to key documents being discussed by historians, and to see the disabled president’s crutches and lift a lever to feel how much weight he had to haul around when he used them. In fact, this is the first time the museum has really explored the president’s disability.
Throughout Roosevelt’s presidency, his staff, in particular his press secretary, Stephen T. Early, insisted that the chief executive never be shown either in his wheelchair or using his crutches, images that might make him appear weak or less than capable of running the country.
As difficult as it is to comprehend in today’s wildly media-centric society, the press photographers and movie makers of FDR’s day readily agreed to the demand. Thus, there are only a few photos today of the president in his wheelchair or “standing” on his crutches.
In addition to the crutches, another of the most powerful exhibits is FDR’s Ford Phaeton, made especially for him with hand controls. The president loved nothing more than to drive visitors around his Hyde Park estate in this hunter green convertible, and as you look at it it you can feel the presence of the
Roosevelt and his press secretary came up with the idea of having the president speak over the radio on topics of great importance to the public, something they dubbed Fireside Chats.
These “chats” were wildly popular with Americans during the dark days of the Depression, and visitors to the library can sit in an area complete with period furnishings and a radio and listen to the president speaking to the country.
Anyone can obtain credentials. (Ask at the front desk in the museum.) The research room is where you will find the scholars who write the books and articles about almost any aspect of Roosevelt, his family, his White House staff, his presidential advisers, and just about anyone who ever had a connection to him.
When you complete your visit to the library and museum, step next door to the Wallace Center, named for Henry A. Wallace, FDR’s secretary of agriculture and then the vice president during his third term.
Opened in 2003, the modern building contains an auditorium where historians and others give talks videotaped for C-Span. Smaller rooms host talks and other activities.
The lobby features a mosaic tile map on the floor depicting the town of Hyde Park as FDR would have remembered it. As you walk around the map, you will see why the 32nd president loved the area.
Have lunch or a snack in Mrs. Nesbitt’s Café, named for Henrietta Nesbitt, a neighbor of the Roosevelts who went to the White House as their cook.
As you munch on a sandwich or a salad, consider that ironically FDR found her food, at best, pedestrian and often complained when he was forced to eat a tuna salad for his lunch day after day. Sadly, her dinners were not much more creative, but Eleanor Roosevelt liked her and felt she was simply doing
After lunch you go across the lobby to the New Deal Store to buy a book about the Roosevelts or a few souvenirs of your visit. But save the afternoon to tour the Roosevelt home, a short walk from the library and the Wallace Center.
Until her death in 1941, the house was owned by FDR’s mother, Sara. His father had died 40 years earlier while Franklin was a student at Harvard.
When he and Eleanor married, they lived in a brownstone in Manhattan, but they spent weekends at Springwood. As Franklin and Eleanor’s family grew and his involvement in politics expanded, he and Sara had two large fieldstone additions built on either side of the house, giving it the look and feel of a country estate.
Even after he became president, FDR as often as he could took the train (he hated flying) from Washington to this home on the Hudson that he loved so dearly. During those years, the house saw a procession of visitors from kings, queens and princesses to prime ministers and a host of politicians.
On the second floor you will see FDR’s bedroom, his iron braces by his bed, and you can feel his presence. Little has been changed in the home since the Roosevelt family lived there, and the guided tour leaves you with a strong sense of the role they and their home played in 20th century history. After you leave the house, be sure to visit the nearby Rose Garden, where Franklin and Eleanor are buried.
After his mother died, FDR donated the estate to the American people on condition that his family maintained a lifetime right to use of the property.
Shortly after he died, the family transferred the estate to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Today the home is a national historic site and receives more than 100,000 visitors annually.
- New York Times, November 20, 1939: “Placed in Cornerstone: Papers Dealing with Roosevelt Library Put in Receptacle.”
- New York Times, July 1, 1941: “Roosevelt Hands Archives to Nation; Dedicating Hyde Park Library of Epochal Era, He Looks to America Ever Free.”
- Kenneth S. Davis, FDR: Into the Storm, 1937-1940 (New York: Random House, 1993).
- “The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1928-1936,” (New York: Random House, 1938).
- Cynthia M. Koch and Lynn A. Bassanese, “Roosevelt and His Library,” Prologue, Summer, 2001.
- www.biography.com/ Franklin D. Roosevelt
- There are many biographies of President Roosevelt. One of the most recent and most complete is FDR by Jean Edward Smith (New York: Random House, 2007).