June 27, 2018

I’ll be There With Your Family, If You Make Your Way Upstate (#65 Revisited: Hudson Valley – FDR’s Home/Top Cottage)

Here’s what you need to know about FDR's home tour.  The ranger gave up a little overview outside the house, and then a little more in the foyer/entry, and then basically turned us loose to wander around the downstairs for awhile.


This was FDR’s childhood home; he was actually born here (on January 30, 1882) in a home and farm overlooking the Hudson River. He grew up loving both the river and the valley.  He eventually expanded the property from 110-acres to nearly 1500-acres and planted over half a million trees.



His interest in planting and farming eventually became the New Deal and Civilian Conservation Corps.  One of the first New Deal programs was aimed at helping farmers retain their land, moved families into government subsidized rural communities and provided farmers decent housing, cooperative work and farming, and education.




The CCC provided jobs to unemployed men, age 17-28.  They planted over 3 billion (yes, billion) trees and built over 800 parks.  (Remember Eleanor also established Val-Kill to help farmers and families at Val-Kill at this time, as well. In fact, I suspect, FDR developed the federal programs based on her work at a local level. – ‘Cause she’s a BOSS!)



FDR married Eleanor in 1905 and they resided in both the Hyde Park house and a New York townhouse.  Together they had 6 children (one dying in infancy), whom were primarily raised on the Hudson Valley property.



After FDR contracted polio (in 1921) and was paralyzed from the waist down, the multi-level house was modified to his needs with ramps along short steps.  A trunk lift, installed years before to move luggage, became his access to the second floor.


Y'all!  This room is called The Snuggery, and I think every home should definitely have a snuggery!


They rigged up a ramp down the center of the stairs so FDR could still use the library, and meet hold meetings in the library.  The wheelchair was almost never seen.  He would already be in the library and seated in a chair before a visitor was allowed in the library.



After wander the ground floor for a bit, we climbed the stairs to the second level where we were turned loose again. Rangers at both Val-Kill and the Roosevelt home made it abundantly clear that Eleanor and FDR’s mother, Sara, did not like each other. And this is where I lose a lot of respect for Franklin.  He moved his poor wife into his mother’s house and it was miserable for her. It was no wonder she built her own house and tried to avoid “the big house”.  

To make it all worse – the adults (FDR, Sara, and Eleanor) had their own little bedroom wing, I know he was sickly, and I know that Eleanor didn’t live there full time, but still... He may have been a great president, but I don’t think he was a particularly good husband.  That whole situation was a giant bowl of Nope.

Boyhood Bedroom:

FDR was born in this room:

FDR's bedroom:

Eleanor's bedroom:


Sara's bedroom - it was her wish (since she knew FDR would be leaving the house to the National Park Service) that her master bedroom furniture be moved back to the birthing room once after her death.  This room was then turned into a guest room for several years.


Top Cottage:

Oh you thought the tour of the house was informal.  Well, pull up a seat because it was nothing compared to Top Cottage.  While now Top Cottage is owned and managed by the National Park Service, it was privately owned for over 50 years after FDR’s death. In 2000, the property was turned over to NPS.  There is reproduction furniture in the living room and on the porch, but this is one place where you’re encouraged to take a seat and have a casual chat.



FDR built Top Cottage as a refuge from the mob.  The Hyde Park house had been that refuge for a long time, but with kids, a mom, neighbors who got wind of a visit and dropped by, the telephone, etc. he found it more and more difficult to relax and unwind there.

Although, Hyde Park had been renovated to accommodate his wheelchair, he also wanted a place where he could be physically independent.  Top Cottage was designed and built exclusively for someone in a wheelchair.  There are no stairs on the first floor (to the front door, or porch), no thresholds between rooms so the wheelchair could easily move about house, the porch was extra wide, and the low hung windows provided a perfect view for the host or seated guests. Even the bathroom mirror was hung to be used by a seated person.  An earthen ramp was built off the side of the porch.






FDR was planning Top Cottage primarily as a retirement getaway, but it was used liberally between for private visits with close friends and associates between 1939 and his death in 1945. FDR also invited world leaders to Top Cottage to discuss foreign policy issues in the informal, intimate setting.  The first such visitors were the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway in April 1939.  King George II of Greece followed shortly thereafter.


The most famous visit to the cottage happened when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain visited the U.S. to strengthen ties between countries on the cusp of World War II.  The menu included traditional foods like smoked turkey and Virginia ham, but much was made in the press of his decision to serve the royal family hot dogs.  Even though no press was allowed to attend, the hot dog debacle was front and center.   But the informal picnic, followed by a visit to Val-Kill for a swim, and the formal hospitality at the “big house” was typical of a visit to the Roosevelt’s.  


Other notable visitors included, Chiang Kai-shek, Crown Princess Louise of Sweden, Queen Wilhelmina and Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, and PM Mackenzie King of Canada.  These visits were “unofficial” so no formal record of the Top Cottage conversations exists.


FDR also had a softer style of governing and often welcomed cabinet members, congressmen, ambassadors, military leaders, governors, etc. were frequent guests at Top Cottage.