This site was the retreat of Eleanor Roosevelt from 1925 to 1945. From the time of her husband’s death in 1945, it was her home until her death in 1962. As a retreat and home, it sustained her and provided her with a nurturing environment for personal and intellectual development.
Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site
4097 Albany Post Road
Hyde Park, NY 12538
ph.: (914) 229-9422
Web site: www.nps.gov/elro/
The Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site is also known as Val-Kill after the Dutch name for “valley stream.” Franklin D. Roosevelt added this site to his family’s Hyde Park estate in 1911, and the family used it for scenic outdoor activities. In 1925 Franklin Roosevelt gave lifetime rights to the property to Eleanor. Val-Kill, to Eleanor, was her special place, where, she said, “I used to find myself and grow” and “I emerged as an individual.” This National Historic Site is a reminder of Roosevelt’s personal growth as well as her towering accomplishments as a humanitarian.
Eleanor Roosevelt was born in 1884 in New York City. Her parents were Elliott Roosevelt and Anna Hall Roosevelt. The Roosevelts were a large and prominent family which included Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor’s uncle and president of the United States from 1901 to 1909. Though her family was wealthy, Eleanor’s early years were marked by adversity. She was orphaned at a young age by her mother’s death from diphtheria and her father’s subsequent death from complications of alcoholism. Eleanor was particularly desolate at the loss of her father, who had treated her very lovingly. She was then looked after by her grandmother, Mary Hall, at Hall’s estate at Tivoli, New York. Though Hall had Eleanor’s best interests at heart, she had a number of adult children who vexed her and made the home a turbulent one.
At fifteen Eleanor was sent to England for schooling at Allenswood, a school whose headmistress, Marie Souvestre, believed in bringing out the best in the young women under her supervision. Within this environment Eleanor flourished. She became a leader among the young women, a friend one could count on, and the favorite of Souvestre. At Allenswood, Roosevelt was schooled to become independent and useful. Above all, however, she was taught to be compassionate. At seventeen, after finishing her course of study, Roosevelt returned to New York City where she sought to put her learning to use. She volunteered to teach at a settlement house which offered aid and education to recent immigrants who resided in tenement houses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
In addition to her volunteer work, Roosevelt did what was expected of a young woman of her wealth and class, making her debut into New York society. During one of the social events to which she was invited, she became reacquainted with her fifth cousin, Franklin Roosevelt. She impressed him with her graceful bearing and fine mind. She took him to the Lower East Side and showed him the destitution of the poor residents there. This was a world to which he had never been exposed during his sheltered youth. This event established a pattern in the Roosevelts’ relationship–Eleanor discovered the poor and disadvantaged and revealed their suffering to Franklin. The two married in 1905.
Eleanor and Franklin resided in New York City while Franklin completed law school at Columbia University and later worked as a lawyer. In 1910 Franklin was elected to the New York state senate. During these early years of their marriage Eleanor gave birth to Anna in 1906, James in 1907, and Franklin Jr. in 1909. She was grief-stricken when Franklin Jr. succumbed to influenza at seven months. Ten months later, Elliott was born. Franklin was named assistant secretary of the navy in 1913, and the couple moved to Washington, D.C., where the second Franklin Jr. was born in 1914, followed by John in 1916. Eleanor remembered that during the entire first decade of their marriage, she either was pregnant or had an infant or toddler in her care. Eleanor also had obligations, arising from her husband’s position, such as following a strict schedule of social visitation to wives of cabinet members and members of Congress. Though naturally shy, she performed her social rounds conscientiously.
Eleanor’s world fell apart in 1918, when she discovered that her husband was romantically involved with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Eleanor considered divorce but was persuaded to reconcile with her husband. After this blow, the marriage never fully recovered. Eleanor determined to lead a more independent life for herself. During the early 1920’s, she joined the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the women’s division of the Democratic Party. There were no more children.
In the summer of 1921 Franklin was stricken by polio. Despite his mother’s desire that he retire to Hyde Park, Eleanor fought to keep her husband active in politics. She was successful in keeping the Roosevelt name before the public. At the same time that she was encouraging her husband to resume his political career, Eleanor continued to build a life independent of FDR. Intrinsic to this quest was the establishment of her own special place.
The impetus to build a retreat at the part of the Hyde Park estate called Val-Kill came in August of 1924. Two of Eleanor’s friends, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, had joined the family for a picnic. When the three friends regretted that Hyde Park would be closing soon for the winter, Franklin suggested that the women build a cottage at Val-Kill so they could come year-round. He offered them several acres for their lifetime use. As FDR put it, “My Missus and some of her female political friends want to build a shack on a stream in the back woods and want, instead of a beautiful marble bath, to have a stream dug out so as to form an old-fashioned swimming hole.”
The “shack” was a stone cottage built in 1925. Franklin helped architect Henry Toombs design the two-story structure in Dutch Colonial style. Cook and Dickerman moved into the cottage and made it their permanent residence until 1947. Eleanor visited on weekends, holidays, and during the summer. In 1926 the three women were joined by a fourth, Caroline O’Day, in a project to aid the upper New York State farmers. They founded Val-Kill Industries, an artisans’ workshop where farmers could supplement their incomes by making simple Shaker-style furniture, pewter pieces, and weavings. The workshop was constructed in 1926. The idea behind the establishment of the industry was that if the farmers were given a way to supplement their inadequate incomes, they would not be forced to move to the city, which the women felt to be a less healthy environment. Eventually the industry fell victim to the Depression and when the factory closed, Eleanor converted the building into two apartments for herself and her private secretary, Malvina “Tommy” Thompson. There were two living rooms, a dining room, seven bedrooms, a dormitory for young people, two large porches downstairs, and a sleeping porch upstairs. This home, the only one which actually belonged to her, brought the greatest happiness to Eleanor.
Franklin was elected governor of New York in 1928. Eleanor continued her activities in the women’s division of the Democratic Party and further honed her political skills. When FDR was elected president of the United States in 1932, Eleanor feared that her own interests would suffer. Just the opposite happened. Eleanor Roosevelt became a spokesperson for the underprivileged in society. She became a champion of racial justice and rights for women. She was highly energetic and traveled widely, becoming the compassionate representative of her husband to people throughout the United States. In addition, she would continue her role as acute observer and report conditions in the country to him. When World War II began, she continued her good works, and traveled throughout the globe bringing comfort to the troops overseas.
After FDR’s death in 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt took up permanent residence at Val-Kill. The home of Franklin D. Roosevelt at at Hyde Park was turned over to the government, but Val-Kill was not part of the bequest. Though Eleanor again had thought her public life would end, she continued to serve her country in many roles. She was appointed by President Harry S Truman as a member of the delegation to the United Nations, an organization she strongly supported. As chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights she was the driving force behind the United Nations Declaration of Rights. Roosevelt considered this to be the greatest work of her life.
Val-Kill was a busy place in the seventeen years that Eleanor lived there after Franklin’s death. She entertained guests ranging from heads of state such as Nikita Khrushchev and Jawaharlal Nehru to students from foreign countries. She had an annual picnic for students from a nearby school for disadvantaged boys and involved her grandchildren in this endeavor. Though Roosevelt entertained frequently, she lived a simple lifestyle, often doing her own daily shopping. She frequently left her guests on their own to enjoy walking, playing tennis, boating, and swimming while she attended to her writing. Though she often traveled she always tried to stop by and greet picnickers while at home. One of the visitors to Val-Kill was Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy, who, upon becoming president, reappointed Roosevelt to the U.N. delegation and appointed her chairperson of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, the last important role of her life. Though Roosevelt also had a place in New York City, Val-kill was the special nurturing place where she felt most comfortable.
At the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site are the furnished home of Eleanor Roosevelt (Val-Kill Cottage), the Stone Cottage, a rose garden, a cutting garden, and a playhouse. It is located two miles east of the home of Franklin D. Roosevelt. At his estate are two sites of interest: the home of FDR and his presidential library and museum. Also in the vicinity is the Vanderbilt mansion.
The home of Franklin D. Roosevelt is called Springwood, and it has original furnishings and family portraits. The gravesites of the president and First Lady are in a rose garden on the estate.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum was the first presidential library to be established. It contains the personal as well as official papers of the former president. The holdings also include memorabilia, movies, and an extensive collection of photographs. Franklin Roosevelt and his mother donated sixteen acres at Hyde Park for the establishment of this institution.
The Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York, is a graceful structure built in the Beaux-Arts manner. It has furnishings of the period, a formal garden, and a beautiful view of the Hudson River.
Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt, 1884-1933. New York: Viking Press, 1992. _______. Eleanor Roosevelt, 1933-1938. New York: Viking Press, 1999. The first two volumes of the most exhaustive biography of Roosevelt. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt–The Home Front in World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. Documents the wartime White House interestingly and well. Lash, Joseph P. Eleanor and Franklin. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971. _______. Eleanor: The Years Alone. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972. Lash was a close friend of Eleanor and provides personal insights in these two volumes. Roosevelt, Eleanor. The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt. 3 vols. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992. This publication of Roosevelt’s work includes the three volumes of her autobiography. Youngs, J. William T. Eleanor Roosevelt: A Personal and Public Life. New York: Longmans, 2000. A superb brief biography.