The village of Hyde Park was the birthplace of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), the thirty-second president of the United States. His home, now a National Historic Site, reflects the culture of his formative years that shaped his personality and political beliefs and substantially accounted for his presidential leadership.
Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site
519 Albany Post Road
Hyde Park, NY 12538-1997
ph.: (914) 229-9115
Web site: www.nps.gov/hofr/
The village of Hyde Park, New York, sits on a bluff on the east side of the Hudson River. In 1867 James Roosevelt, father of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), purchased a seventeen-room house and several hundred acres about a mile south of the village to replace his previous house a few miles farther south that a fire had destroyed. At the time, large estates lined the bluff for miles overlooking the Hudson. Between this new Roosevelt estate and the village of Hyde Park were the Newbold and Rogers estates, the latter a seventy-room mansion in Romanesque style. In 1898, Frederick W. Vanderbilt built a Renaissance-style mansion of fifty rooms and a gatehouse only a block north of the center of the village. Hyde Park owed its existence to the nearby estates; as late as 1925 fewer than nine hundred persons lived in the village.
Mr. James, as everyone called him, named his estate Springwood and ran it like an English gentleman. When, as a widower, Mr. James married Sara Delano in 1880, a similar family background had prepared her well for the life at Springwood. There, on January 30, 1882, she gave birth to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the future thirty-second president.
Until he was fourteen years old, Master Franklin lived in a world deeply rooted in a distinctive way of life that provided him with love, attention, status, security, and role models. It was an ordered world in which everyone knew her or his place and responsibility. Life at Springwood included a cook, a nurse and governesses, maids, a gardener and a greenhouse, a coachman, and workers who farmed the extensive estate. Master Franklin’s playmates included, in addition to visiting relatives, Mary Newbold from the adjoining estate and the two Rogers sons. Until he left for Groton School, private tutors educated him.
His parents, their relatives, and their friends evaluated individuals and events by standards of honesty, public morality, and a belief in noblesse oblige. Despite business affairs in New York City and extensive foreign travels, James and Sara Roosevelt most cherished their Hyde Park home and their self-assigned roles of an English country squire and a patrician matron who were responsible for setting examples of how persons of their class should live. The Roosevelt wealth, while substantial, was more modest than that of the Rogers and Vanderbilt families, and the Roosevelt consumption was far less conspicuous, although they did travel by private railroad car.
Mr. James maintained a relationship with Hyde Park. He sat on the school board, served a two-year term as supervisor for the town, and for decades served as vestryman at St. James Episcopal Church. Although the majority of voters tended to vote Republican in the village and township, Democrats in 1892 celebrated the election of Grover Cleveland as president; they organized a torchlight parade and march to Springwood in honor of Hyde Park’s most prominent Democrat.
An understanding of life at Springwood and, to a lesser extent, its setting in Hyde Park is essential to understanding FDR personally and politically. Scholars, almost unanimously, have concluded that Roosevelt’s greatest contributions as president were his ability to inspire confidence across the country and his belief that the federal government had a positive responsibility for the general welfare of the nation. Most biographers also agree that FDR’s ability to inspire stemmed from a personality anchored in his own sense of security and that his belief in governmental stewardship reflected a principle embedded in the values of James and Sara Roosevelt.
FDR’s four years at Groton reinforced the values he absorbed at home. James had carefully selected Groton because the headmaster, Endicott Peabody, was an Episcopalian clergyman who ran his school on a philosophy of an enlightened English boarding school. Throughout his life FDR identified Endicott and Fanny Peabody as second only to his parents in their influence on his life.
For the six years after he graduated from Harvard in 1904, FDR attended Columbia University Law School. He married Eleanor Roosevelt, his fifth cousin, in 1905 and worked for a law firm in New York City. Neither the law nor the city satisfied FDR, so in 1910 he eagerly accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for state senator from the mid-Hudson Valley district. A political career based in Hyde Park appealed to him. He won the election and embarked on the profession that characterized the remainder of his life.
After James died in 1900, Sara managed the Springwood estate as closely as possible in the manner of her husband. FDR, however, wished to control property of his own. In 1911 he purchased 194 acres adjoining Springwood to the east. The first year he planted 8,000 evergreen trees; by 1928 the number had increased to 65,000, and by the time of his death he had planted more than 300,000 trees. Throughout his political career he called himself a tree farmer. Clearly FDR’s conservation programs and policies as governor and president had antecedents in Hyde Park years earlier. FDR added other land to his holdings, became a landlord, and maintained friendships in the community.
FDR made his most important and lasting impact on Springwood in 1915 and 1916, when he planned and contracted for a fundamental remodeling of the house his father had purchased. By 1915 Eleanor and Franklin had four children; their fifth child arrived in March, 1916. The seventeen rooms in the house simply could not accommodate his family with its nurses and maids and house servants. Only when FDR insisted that he would build his own house did Sara consent to the changes.
The remodeled house bore little resemblance to the original. A raised roof added a third floor to the center of the house, and the south and north wings added still more rooms. When finished, the house contained thirty-five rooms, eight of them for servants, and nine baths. Native fieldstone from stone walls on the estate covered the two wings, and stucco coated the central portion of the house. A large library-living room filled the entire first floor of the south wing and mirrored FDR’s interests. Bookshelves held his vast leather-bound book collection, and cabinets held his stamp collections. Each end of the room featured a marble fireplace. Over one hung a portrait of FDR’s great-great-grandfather, and over the other a portrait of his great-grandfather. At Christmas a large tree with live candles stood in the center of the room. FDR so loved the room that in 1937 he wrote funeral instructions that would place his casket in front of one fireplace so that he could spend the night before burial in his favorite spot.
FDR’s penchant for native fieldstone resulted in several buildings of that material. In 1924, he helped plan a stone cottage on his land for his wife so that she could meet with friends in her own home. It would be almost two miles east of the Big House, as local residents called Sara’s house. The Dutch Colonial style that FDR picked for Eleanor’s house, known as Val-Kill, indicated his strong identification with his Dutch ancestors and the Dutch who settled much of the Hudson Valley. In 1927 Sara, in keeping with her son’s preference for native fieldstone and Dutch Colonial architecture, built a small library of that material and style in the village in honor of her late husband.
Like his wife, FDR enjoyed a more private atmosphere than the Big House provided. In 1938 he started construction on what he called his Top Cottage. Located on a hill east of Eleanor’s stone cottage, the one-level Dutch Colonial structure of fieldstone offered a spectacular view of the Hudson, more than two miles to the west. Except for two crossing highways and the railroad tracks along the river, the fields and woods between Top Cottage and the river all belonged to the Roosevelts.
In 1940 FDR dedicated Hyde Park’s three new fieldstone schools named in his honor. The next year he dedicated the new fieldstone post office.
Late in his second term FDR decided to build a library near the Big House to hold his family records, official papers, and mementos of his time in office. He donated sixteen acres of land, and private citizens donated the money for construction. FDR designed the stone Dutch Colonial building. The museum portion of the library opened in 1941, but FDR maintained a study in the archives portion, where he held meetings and gave four of his fireside chats. The museum exhibits include FDR’s car, with its hand controls, in which he enjoyed driving around his estate and Hyde Park village. Every president after FDR has followed his example and built a presidential library.
Sara Roosevelt died in September, 1941, and thereafter FDR maintained the house exactly as she left it. Two years later he donated the house and thirty-three acres to the government with the proviso that his family be permitted to live there after his death. In November, 1945, seven months after his death, the family relinquished their rights and the National Park Service assumed administration of the property.
The village and town of Hyde Park form part of Dutchess County, whose residents of that time usually elected Republican candidates. In FDR’s seven political campaigns, Hyde Park village voters gave him a majority in only his two races for the state senate in 1910 and 1912 and his 1930 race to win reelection as governor. On election nights, Hyde Park supporters kept up a long tradition of calling on FDR to help celebrate his victories. Hyde Park, with a population of a few thousand at the time FDR died, became a suburban community during the following decades. FDR’s legacy, however, defines Hyde Park.
The only president ever elected to third and fourth terms, FDR led the nation through its greatest economic depression and through World War II. At Springwood he proudly entertained such houseguests as the king and queen of Great Britain, the crown princess of the Netherlands, and British prime minister Winston Churchill. As president he often returned to Hyde Park for weekends and vacations. To a degree matched by few other leaders, FDR assimilated family tradition and a place, Hyde Park, into his personality and transmitted them to the nation.
In Hyde Park the National Park Service administers as National Historic Sites the home of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the home of Frederick W. Vanderbilt. Approximately two miles from the Roosevelt Home, the National Park Service administers the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site. The National Archives operates the Roosevelt Presidential Library. The Hyde Park post office contains a large mural depicting local scenes from different time periods.
Burns, James MacGregor. Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1956. One of the finest biographies of any American. Covers FDR’s first two terms. Volume 2, Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom (1989), continues the study. Graham, Otis L., Jr., and Meghan Robinson Wander. Franklin D. Roosevelt His Life and Times. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. A treasure of essays of varying lengths about Roosevelt, other individuals, events, and programs. Maney, Patrick. The Roosevelt Presence. New York: Twayne, 1992. A short, insightful, well-written biography. Roosevelt Library. www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu. Ward, Geoffrey C. Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. A rich narrative of family history and biography of FDR, stopping after his wedding in 1905. _______. A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Continues his study, covering the years 1905 through election as governor in 1928.