- Historic Sites
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
During the presidential years, FDR did undertake to rename the place. Springwood, the name his father had chosen for it, was meaningless, he decided, “like Bellevue, or Oak Hill, or the Willows.” It should be called “Crum Elbow,” he said, claiming that was its original name. (The historical basis for this was that in the 179Os an old house had stood on the Roosevelt land that was called alternately “Krum Elbow” and “Crooke’s Delight.” FDR understandably preferred the former name.) Howland Spencer, a very distant and wealthy cousin who lived just across the Hudson and deplored the New Deal and its author with special vehemence, loudly objected. His estate, still plainly visible from Springwood, had always been called Crum Elbow, he said; the President was a usurper.
Food grown at Springwood supplied Roosevelt tables for decades.
“There is no reason in the world,” FDR shot back, “why anybody owning land on either side of the river abutting on the ‘Crum Elbow’ or Turn in the River,’ should not call their place ‘Crum Elbow,’ if they want to, but the fact remains that the land owned by my Mother and myself was called ‘Crum Elbow’ by the original occupants two hundred years ago.”
Spencer was not mollified. FDR then asked the Board of Geographical Names, U.S. Department of the Interior, to make a formal decision regarding who had the most legitimate claim to the old name. Perhaps not surprisingly, a judgment was formally rendered in favor of the President of the United States; Crum Elbow was designated as a “point on the east bank of the Hudson River about 4½ miles above Poughkeepsie, Dutchess County, New York.”
FDR was pleased; his mother was not. To reject the name by which she had always known her home must have seemed to her a betrayal of Mr. James’s benevolent ghost, and once, when she overheard a guest using “Crum Elbow” in conversation, she was quick to correct him. He apologized, saying that he had heard the President himself use it.
“Franklin doesn’t know everything ,” she said.
By then he had managed to make his own limited mark on the place. FDR, a doting aunt once wrote, had been “raised in a beautiful frame.” In 1914 he persuaded his mother to make that frame a good deal more elaborate. He had long wanted to enlarge the house, to make it a setting more suitable for the statesman he was already confident he would become. She had resisted. But now he had five children, and when the younger Roosevelts arrived for a visit with a full complement of maids and governesses, even his mother had to admit that her old house was strained to the eaves. She gave her permission to expand.
Francis Hoppin, a fashionable architect once married to a Roosevelt cousin, was nominally put in charge of the project, but it was very largely Franklin’s work. The old clapboards were ripped off; the piazza was dismantled; the south tower, in whose attic room Franklin had played as a boy, was lowered, and a second tower built to match it to the north. The front roof was raised to hold a thirdfloor nursery. Three-story wings—built, at Franklin’s urging, out of native stone brought to the site from the old walls that twisted through the Springwood forests—were added onto either side of the central section, which was stuccoed gray to match them. A broad porch with a sweeping balustrade formed a new, far more formal entrance. The result- “Georgian, with a dash of Hudson River Dutch,” according to one architectural historian—has thirty-five rooms, including eight meant for servants, plus nine baths.
Not long before Eleanor Roosevelt died, someone was smart enough to get her to record her memories of the house at Hyde Park, and today, before moving past its rooms, visitors may rent audiocassettes and have the benefit of her bittersweet account of how life was lived in them. In her recording, she managed to have the last word about the home in which, she once wrote, “for over forty years I was only a visitor. …”
It is evident the moment you step into the entrance hall that the redesigned house was meant in large part as a showcase for those gentlemanly accomplishments of Franklin’s of which his mother most approved. A sizable portion of his collection of early nineteenth-century naval prints blankets most of one wall. To the left is a life-size bronze statue of a seated Franklin, cast in 1911, the year after he had entered politics as a state senator. Behind the statue a case displays stuffed local birds, shot and labeled by him as a boy, and which his mother would trust no servant to dust.
Off the hall to the left is the crowded, claustrophobic little chamber that was the real seat of power in Sara’s house. She called it her “snuggery” and filled it with memorabilia and with pictures of the ancestors whose example she insisted her son keep constantly in mind. Here she wrote her letters, gave orders to the staff, was served breakfast, and herself poured tea in the afternoon for those guests nimble enough to pick their way past the bric-a-brac to one of the small, red, velvet-covered chairs, and from here she could keep watch through the window on who came and went at her front door.