The House At Hyde Park
A biographer who knows it well tours Franklin Roosevelt’s home on the Hudson and finds it was not so much the President’s castle as it was his formidable mother’s.
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
For better than four years now I have been writing about Franklin Roosevelt’s youth, seeking the sources of the serene selfassurance that served him and his country so well during the two worst crises since the Civil War. In the course of that work I have spent months at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, New York, burrowing through his papers in search of clues.
Sometimes, after the reading room closes at 4:45 sharp, I put off retreating to my motel room across the old Albany Post Road and wander along a path that leads beneath ancient evergreens and past the tall hemlock hedges that wall the garden in which Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt lie buried, to the lawn that overlooks the Hudson just south of Springwood, the big, comfortable house in which FDR was born and to which he returned more than two hundred times during his dozen years as President.
Without getting to know this place—the house itself and what is left of the estate that once surrounded it—I believe it is impossible even to begin to understand the sinuous, complicated man who chose to spend so much time here.
Certain historic homes evoke their former occupants more vividly than others. Thomas Jefferson’s ingenious selfportrait-in-brick at Monticello; Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill, still echoing with his noisy energy; Mark Twain’s opulent, idiosyncratic mansion at Hartford, which seems simultaneously to lampoon and to revel in the Gilded Age he named—each is filled with clues to character and personality indispensable to a biographer but also detectable by any visitor with the time to take them in. Springwood at Hyde Park is as evocative as any of them, but it is not FDR’s personality alone that it mirrors.
Despite his genuine love for the house and his public identification with it—between 1933 and 1945 Hyde Park was one of the world’s most familiar datelines—Springwood was never really his. It was his mother’s home, and before that it had been his father’s, as Sara Delano Roosevelt never let anyone forget; his initials, not FDR’s, are still emblazoned on the weather vane that turns on its tower above the roof of the old family stable. James Roosevelt—“ Mr. James” to servants, friends, even most members of the family—bought a seventeen-room farmhouse here with his first wife in 1867 and began to lead the quiet life of an English country squire. “Life as it is meant to be lived” Sara once called it: rowing on the river, raising trotting horses, supporting St. James’ Episcopal Church and serving on the local school board, and going into the city to look after his investments as rarely as possible. “I often wonder,” he wrote from the piazza that once wound around his Hyde Park house, “why men are satisfied to live all their lives between brick walls and thinking of nothing but money and the so-called recreations of so-called society when there is so much enjoyment in the country.”
Despite FDR’s true love for the house, Springwood was never really his.
And it was here that, as a widower, Mr. James first courted the beautiful Sara Delano, half his age, in the spring of 1880. The James Roosevelts managed to have just one child, to whose development and well-being his mother devoted attention singular even in that time, when motherhood was universally thought woman’s highest calling.
Franklin built crow’s nests in the tallest trees and banged together a river raft that sank five feet from shore, rode a fat pony named Debbie, helped his dogs dig after the woodchucks that riddled his father’s fields, coasted on sleds down the long slope below the house, ventured farther and farther into the deep woods that separated Springwood from the other estates that stretched along the bluffs. No achievement was too small to win his parents’ praise; his mother saved every childhood book and toy, every childish drawing and all the golden curls she reluctantly had clipped for the first time when he was nearly six—“Oh, long before they should have been!” she said.
Mr. James was a vigorous, enthusiastic presence in Franklin’s first years, inculcating in him while riding through Springwood’s forests a lifelong love of trees, horses, the outdoors; to be a Roosevelt and a Delano, he and Sara both taught their boy, was a mark of distinction never to be disgraced, an exalted position that carried with it both privileges and obligations.
Sara Delano Roosevelt was once asked if she had always thought her son would one day be President. “Never, oh, never!” she answered. Her ambition for him had been far loftier, she said: “The highest ideal 1 could hold up before our boy—to grow to be like his father, straight and honorable, just and kind, an upstanding American.”