Sagamore Hill was the permanent home of President Theodore Roosevelt from 1886 until his death in 1919. After the death of his widow, Edith Roosevelt, the home was presented to the American people as a site to commemorate President Roosevelt and his ideals. The home and nearby museum contain artifacts and displays relating to the Roosevelt family.
Sagamore Hill National Historic Site
Sagamore Hill Road
Oyster Bay, NY 11771-1807
ph.: (516) 922-4788
Web site: www.nps.gov/sahi/
Sagamore Hill is best known as the home of the “Oyster Bay Roosevelts,” the family of Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-sixth president of the United States. The home and nearby museum contain numerous artifacts from the Roosevelt family. The home itself is furnished primarily with items owned by the Roosevelts rather than only period pieces. President Roosevelt lived in the home upon its completion in 1886 and died in his sleep in his upstairs bedroom in 1919.
In 1873, Theodore’s father, Theodore, Sr., decided Oyster Bay would be the family’s summer residence as a means to escape the heat of New York City. Oyster Bay had served as home for several generations of Roosevelts, so the area was appropriate for the growing Roosevelt family. The older Roosevelt rented a large Southern plantation-style home befitting his wife’s Southern roots. The home was named Tranquility. The water of nearby Oyster Bay provided an outlet for the children’s energy and a means to escape the heat. Life in the country also provided a means for the younger Theodore to exercise and overcome the health problems that plagued him as a youth.
Roosevelt spent his vacations exploring the woodlands of Oyster Bay. He often spent his free time with young women in a boat on the bay reading stories and poetry. His love of the area resulted in his later plans to build a permanent home near the bay.
In 1880, Roosevelt married Alice Lee, a young woman he had met at a tea party while attending Harvard. Shortly after the wedding, the Roosevelts purchased sixty acres of land on a hilltop at Cove Neck overlooking Oyster Bay with the intention of building a manor. Named Leeholm after Mrs. Roosevelt, the home would have the massive walls and oak paneling that he admired. They also planned on including a large piazza, a large library, and a gun room which overlooked Long Island Sound. Theodore’s poor health, however, probably incited by the return of severe asthma, forced postponement of their plans.
In August, 1883, Roosevelt purchased another ninety-five acres of land for twenty thousand dollars, allowing him to control the entire large estate in that area. At the time of the purchase, the area was a windswept hillside with the only building being an old barn. Total cost of the purchases was approximately thirty thousand dollars; Roosevelt paid ten thousand dollars in cash and assumed a twenty-year mortgage for twenty thousand dollars.
The Roosevelts pictured Leeholm as a large, three-story mansion with twelve bedrooms and a resemblance to the state capitol building in Lansing, Michigan. The total area was approximately 155 acres, of which he kept 95 and sold the remainder to relatives.
Alice Roosevelt was not to see the home. On February 14, 1884, she died in their New York City brownstone while giving birth to their first child, Alice. Several hours earlier in the same home, Roosevelt’s mother had died from typhoid fever.
On March 1, two weeks after the deaths of his wife and mother, Roosevelt signed the contract for the building of Leeholm. The New York architectural firm of Lamb and Rich had prepared the original plans prior to the death of Alice Roosevelt. Roosevelt hired John Wood and Son from Lawrence, Long Island, to be the contractors at a cost of $16,975. The total cost, including outbuildings, would be slightly more than $22,000.
Even though it was still winter, construction on the home began immediately. Roosevelt planned to have the house built by that summer, possibly to serve as a permanent home for himself and his baby daughter.
In December, 1886, Roosevelt married Edith Carow. Carow had been a childhood sweetheart, and following a period of mourning for his first wife, Roosevelt resumed a courtship that culminated in marriage. The Roosevelts would have five additional children.
Construction on the home at Cove Neck was completed in 1885; the family moved there permanently in the spring following their marriage. Roosevelt also changed the name of his home from Leeholm to Sagamore Hill after Mohannis, the local sagamore (chief) who had once signed away the rights to the land on which the estate stood. In fact, local legends suggested Mohannis Cove or Hill as the original name for the site.
The home, as it was originally built in the 1880’s, was a twenty-two room Victorian structure made of frame and brick. A thirty-by-forty-foot room built from a combination of mahogany, black walnut, hazel, and swamp cypress woods was added on the north side of the building in 1905. This particular room was designed by Roosevelt’s friend C. Grant La Farge, son of the artist John La Farge. The building has not been significantly altered since it was occupied by the Roosevelts.
In addition to the north room, the first floor of the home contains a large library that also served as an office for the president, a kitchen and dining room, and Edith Roosevelt’s drawing room. A large center hall connects the rooms.
The second floor of the building contains the family bedrooms, the guest bedrooms, a nursery, and a room with a giant porcelain bathtub. The president’s son, the future General Theodore Roosevelt, recalled watching for the “faucet lady” in the pipe of the bathtub, which he believed to be the source of the strange noises coming from the tub as the water ran out.
The third floor includes the rooms in which lived the cook and maids, a sewing room, a tutorial room for use by the children for their education, General Roosevelt’s bedroom prior to his enrollment in college, and the president’s gun room where he kept his collections of firearms. The gun room also served as an additional office away from the noise of the main floor where the president could write.
Most of the furnishings in the house were originally owned by the Roosevelt family, as were most of the items situated throughout the house. The large number of books attests to the wide range of interests held by the family, but particularly by the president. Roosevelt himself was the author of many of the books. The north room on the first floor, in particular, highlights the “masculine” interests of the president; it contains many of his hunting trophies and mounts, in addition to paintings, flags, and sturdy period furniture.
Roosevelt enjoyed the view of the harbor and Long Island Sound from the house, and the large piazza extending around the south and west sides of the house was built expressly for enjoying the view on warm summer nights. The grounds also contain numerous landscaped gardens.
The president’s son, General Theodore Roosevelt, built his own home in 1938 on the estate near the house. Now called the Old Orchard Museum, it also contains items owned by the Roosevelt family and artifacts from the president’s political career. A daily show highlights, in film and photographs, the president and his role in shaping early twentieth century America. The show includes some of the few examples of the recorded voice of the president. Guided tours through the grounds provide examples of unusual plant life, as well as a feel for the region prior to development.
Sagamore Hill was more than just President and Mrs. Roosevelt’s home. Three of their children were born there, and it was home for all of the family. By all accounts, Roosevelt was a doting father to his six children and their friends; he enjoyed romping and hiking with the children through the area. President Roosevelt advocated the “strenuous life” and could frequently be found swimming, riding horseback, or chopping wood on the estate. Except for absences due to Roosevelt’s political career, the family spent most of their lives in the home.
Sagamore Hill frequently played its own part in Roosevelt’s political career. The piazza was the site at which Roosevelt was formally notified of his nomination for governor in 1898, vice president in 1900, and president in 1904. In 1905, Roosevelt met in the library with the envoys from Russia and Japan, adversaries in the Russo-Japanese War. The Treaty of Portsmouth that Roosevelt brokered not only ended the war, but also resulted in his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The president’s health declined precipitously in his last years. Illness acquired during his travels to remote regions of the world played a part. The death of his son Quentin in World War I also delivered a personal blow from which he never fully recovered. Roosevelt retired to the home where he would die on January 6, 1919, at the age of sixty. Edith Roosevelt lived at Sagamore Hill until her death in 1948. Both are buried in the family cemetery located down the hill from the home. In 1950, Sagamore Hill was purchased by the Theodore Roosevelt Association, a nonprofit organization that also owned the site of Roosevelt’s birth in New York City. Both sites were presented as gifts “to the American people” in 1963. Since then, the sites have been supervised by the National Park Service.
The headquarters of the Oyster Bay Historical Society is found in the Earle-Wightman House located on Summit Street in downtown Oyster Bay. Originally built in 1720, the house subsequently underwent several expansions. A museum and research library are found within the house. Lectures, tours, and educational programs are presented throughout the year. Period costumes are worn to enhance the historical aspect of the house.
The research library within the house contains a large number of manuscripts, photographs, maps, and documents related to development of the Oyster Bay area. Nearby is an eighteenth century garden that contains a large array of ornamental plants and herbs.
Planting Fields off Mill River Road in Oyster Bay is the site of a large arboretum. An additional feature of the property is Coe Hall, an early Tudor-Revival mansion dating to the period of Queen Elizabeth I. The Hay Barn is an air-conditioned facility used for concerts, theatrical performances, and art shows.
The centerpiece of the site is the large arboretum, home of over six hundred types of azaleas, unusual varieties of trees, and five acres of over four hundred species of flowering shrubs. The greenhouses contain large collections of cacti and ferns as well as numerous exhibits.
Approximately five miles away on the edge of the sound is Cold Spring Harbor. Originally established as a whaling station, the harbor is now home to one of the major research laboratories for the study of molecular biology. Hiking trails from the laboratory can be followed to Sagamore Hill. The town, located a short walk from the laboratory facilities, also houses period homes and museums.
Grant, George. Carry a Big Stick. Nashville: Cumberland House, 1996. This biography of Roosevelt also contains descriptions of the home. Miller, Nathan. Theodore Roosevelt: A Life. New York: William Morrow, 1994. Easily readable biography that also contains vignettes of Roosevelt’s family and home life. Morris, Edmund. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Ballantine Books, 1979. Classic biography of Roosevelt. Sagamore Hill often served as a meeting place for dignitaries. Renehan, Edward. The Lion’s Pride: Theodore and His Family in Peace and War. London: Oxford University Press, 1999. Well-written biography of the family and home life that draws upon previously unpublished letters and memoirs. “Sagamore Hill.” www.liglobal.com/highlights/saghill/sag1.html. Contains history and photographs.