- 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 bedroom itself is arranged to minimize the importance of his paralysis. A special White House telephone rests on a bedside table within easy reach; the walls are hung with cartoons and family pictures; the view from the big double bed his godmother gave him of the Hudson and of his beloved trees is magnificent. He spent several hours here each morning, propped against pillows, a sweater around his massive shoulders, a cigarette in his mouth, his breakfast tray littered with ashes, half a dozen newspapers and mail dispatched overnight from Washington spread across the bed in front of him. Visitors—and they began early—were greeted with warmth and exaggerated animation. Even as an attendant helped him wash and dress, he talked incessantly, gestured broadly, listened and laughed and held forth, intent on demonstrating that he was still in command. Through sheer force of personality, pity was transformed into fascination in this room, potential patronization into delight and admiration.
Sara eventually made her peace with her son’s decision to return to politics —his stubbornness, she knew, was at least the equal of her own—and she was proud, though “not surprised,” she said, to have been the only mother ever to see her son three times elected President of the United States. (His fourth victory came after her death.) She especially enjoyed welcoming the traditional torchlight parades that brought the cheering Democrats of Hyde Park up the driveway to her broad porch on election night, though the damage these enthusiasts did to her lawn each time was a source of some concern to her and her gardener.
By the mid-1920s Eleanor could only bear the house for a few hours at a time.
But if FDR was running the country, she continued to run Springwood, and this sometimes caused confusion at the dining table. Eleanor once brought two Vassar girls to lunch with her mother-inlaw. One of the students, up on current events, asked the First Lady what her husband was going to do about the budget.
“Budget? Budget?” Sara said. “What does the child mean? Oh, but Franklin knows nothing about budgets. I always make the budgets.”
The office her son used as President had once served as his children’s summer schoolroom, a tiny, dark cave off the veranda, part of the servants’ wing. World leaders and national politicians crowded into it, the President often broadcast from behind its desk, and in this room he and Winston Churchill signed the agreement that led to the making of the atomic bomb. Yet even here his mother made her admonitory presence felt. A small adjoining cloakroom beneath the stairs served to house the presidential staff, and here, in the evenings before dinner, he would call together for drinks his guests and aides and secretaries because his mother discouraged cocktails elsewhere in her house. “It was made into fun, you know,” the journalist Martha Gellhorn remembered. “With shrieks of laughter we’d gather with the President of the United States, the coats hanging up on the wall, he in his wheelchair whipping up the martinis and drinking as if we were all bad children having a feast in the dormitory at night. …”
Great and genuine affection for the mother who was so devoted to him, plus many years of practice at forbearance, usually kept FDR from more than momentary exasperation at his mother’s loving intrusions. But by the mid-1920s her daughter-in-law could no longer endure Springwood for more than a few hours at a time, and with FDR’s backing, she built for herself a simple stone cottage on the bank of Val-Kill Creek, one and a half miles east of her mother-in-law’s home. Sara was never able to understand her daughter-in-law’s wish to have an establishment of her own, or her determination to sleep there overnight, and was further hurt when FDR began to build a cottage for himself on a hilltop overlooking Val-Kill and the Hudson Valley—so deeply hurt, in fact, that the President promised never to spend a night there so long as she lived. (The little stone house, named Top Cottage by FDR but called, to his fury, his “dream house” by the press, still stands—privately owned and off-limits to visitors.)
There is no written record of what his mother thought of her son’s plan to build the very first presidential library on the Springwood grounds; it permanently altered the look of the Place, but it also provided still another handsome backdrop for her son and for all the relics of his youth that she had hoarded and that now form part of the chronological account of his life arranged around its gallery walls. In any case she was finally reconciled to the notion and even sent her chauffeur, Louis Depew, to Long Island to collect stones from Theodore Roosevelt’s Oyster Bay estate to be incorporated into the library walls as one more sign of family continuity. (Depew brought back the stones, but somehow they were overlooked until the building was completed; later they became part of the little gatehouse in which sentries were posted during World War II.)