- 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
The big, paneled library that occupies the whole south end of the house was the room to which Franklin and his mother devoted the most loving attention. Nearly every inch of it is designed to display his collections to full advantage. His leather-bound sets of books line the walls; his miniature books fill specially built cabinets; glass-covered shelves display his coins, medals, and other knickknacks; a map case held his stamp albums.
The Roosevelt coat of arms is deeply carved above the imposing marble fireplaces at both ends of the room. On either side of the west fireplace, Franklin and his mother each had a special chair—matching, high-backed governor’s chairs after 1933. Eleanor had to find her own place to sit.
She had no special seat in the dining room either. Sara sat at the head of the table, facing her son, whose chair was kept at a slant so that he might slip into it more easily from his wheelchair. In the center of the table sat a blue-green English bowl of Oriental design in which Mr. James had asked her to arrange flowers from his garden on her very first visit to Springwood. She continued to fill it herself every morning for some sixty years thereafter, and the National Park Service, which has cared for the house since 1945, continues this ritual.
Things ran on Sara’s schedule, and she made few concessions, even to her family. A Chinese gong on the stairs was tapped once, precisely half an hour before lunch and dinner and again just five minutes before food reached the table. It was unwise to be late. Grandchildren were inspected before they took their places. “My dear, you have a decided stable odor,” Anna Roosevelt remembered being told after she had come in from a morning’s ride. “A bath, of course, will cure it. And don’t forget you must wear a dress for lunch!” (Sara never stopped trying to teach her descendants manners. In 1935 she had built on the lawn a white playhouse in which she wistfully hoped her small great-grandchildren would serve one another formal tea in the afternoons; later Eleanor Roosevelt had it moved to the lawn of her modest nearby cottage, where her grandchildren put it to more rough-and-tumble use.)
Eleanor, also, came under her mother-in-law’s dining-room scrutiny. A visitor recalls Sara saying to her, in front of dinner guests, “If you’d just run your comb through your hair, dear, you’d look so much nicer.” Such advice, once welcomed by an orphaned daughter-in-law unaccustomed to having anyone care about her, eventually came to seem intolerable.
Franklin’s favorite boyhood foods were often served: hot cornbread, kedgeree, minute pudding. But even when he was President, his behavior was monitored. Once, the youngest grandson, John, used the word damn at table. Sara frowned but said nothing. A few minutes later FDR himself used it. “Our little Johnny learns his language from the stable,” she announced to the family, “and Franklin apparently learns it from Johnny.”
Despite the lofty standards of behavior upon which she insisted, Sara’s grandchildren shared their father’s delight in visiting Springwood. “Hyde Park,” Anna Roosevelt once told an interviewer, “was very definitely my most favorite place in life. … Hyde Park was home, and the only place I ever thought was completely home.” Her brothers felt the same way. Their grandmother was responsible for much of that. Her unqualified affection for her son spilled over onto each of his children. Anna remembered that her busy parents’ morning greetings were perfunctory pecks on the cheek over the breakfast table, but “when I was sent…to say ‘Good Morning’ to Granny as she finished her breakfast in bed, her hug and kiss were … warm—almost suffocating. …” Sara had provided for her son the sort of unchanging, unquestioning love Anna once privately admitted her own mother, Eleanor, had failed to provide for her and her brothers, and Sara tried her best to provide the same for the grandchildren, who adored her. She was “far more than a grandparent,” Anna remembered. “She was inextricably interwoven with the Place.”
The children’s warm memories of Springwood were also bound up with the active presence of their father. “My happiest memories of Father, my most carefree escapades of childhood,” James remembered, “all seem centered [at Springwood].” The children came closest to holding FDR’s attention there; he swept them up in the activities he had always loved. He took Anna riding with him through the woods, “pointing] out varieties of birds as they darted by,” swam with all the children in the ice pond behind the house, and took them iceboating on the frozen river. Coasting below the house, James recalled, FDR “was like a kid himself. He would chase us back up the steep road at a pace so fast our lungs would ache … ,” then plunge with them down the hillside again. Those who fell off were not to cry.
Eleanor said that for forty years she was “only a visitor” at Hyde Park.
Sara, bundled in furs, often watched from the edge of the snowy bluff, Elliott Roosevelt recalled; his mother sat alone inside by the fire.