The House At Hyde Park

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Sara’s resolve to remain central to her son’s life never diminished, however, and when he announced plans to give up his small Springwood study and shift to a bigger, brighter office in the south corner of the library, she commissioned a life-size portrait of herself from Douglas Chandor and made sure it went with him, to stand on an easel just across from his desk.

 

Sara Delano Roosevelt did her best to keep things as they had always been at Springwood, but the public lives her son and daughter-in-law insisted upon leading inevitably disrupted her stately routine. She delighted in the more distinguished men and women who sought them out; on the top of the music-room piano at which Franklin once stumbled reluctantly through his lessons are displayed portraits of members of royalty, the sort of people his mother most enjoyed meeting. But she also tried to accommodate visitors whom she found far less appealing: political operatives who scattered ashes on her carpets; woman social workers in trousers; profane newspapermen; labor organizers from the Lower East Side.

She was gracious to all of them, of course. “I have always believed,” she once explained, “that a mother should be friends with her children’s friends.” But the strain sometimes showed. On a Sunday morning in the early autumn of 1932, Sen. Huey P. Long of Louisiana came to Springwood to confer with the Democratic nominee for President. Always a flamboyant dresser, Long had outdone himself on this occasion, wearing a broadly striped suit, an orchid shirt, and a bright pink necktie—perhaps in a conscious effort to show the patrician Roosevelts they could not intimidate him. FDR, as apparently affable as always, invited him to stay for lunch, and the two men discussed campaign strategy, leaving the other guests to talk among themselves. During a momentary silence Sara’s voice could be heard whispering loudly, “Who is that awful man sitting on my son’s right?”

Her priorities remained fixed. Family and standards always came first. Long after her death at eighty-six, in September 1941, a homemade bulletin board covered with the telephone numbers she had most frequently called still hung above the telephone just off the front hall; every number noted on it in her confident hand belonged to a family member or someone connected with the running of her household. For her, everything else was always secondary.

More and more, the place became for FDR a symbol of calm and security.

FDR’s old resentment of his mother’s resistance to change waned as his own public life outside Springwood grew more turbulent. More and more the Place seems to have become for him, as it had been for her, the reassuring symbol of calm and security. At critical moments in the White House, he once told a daughter-in-law, he found that the best way to lull himself to sleep was to close his eyes and “coast down the hills at Hyde Park in the snow, and then I walk slowly up … and I know every curve.”

In the end FDR’s eldest son believes that one of the things his father came to admire most about Sara was that “she could be counted on to keep Springwood just as it had always been, which was how he really wanted it, how we all really wanted it. Father never tried very hard to make the place modern or efficient,” he adds, pointing out that after Sara’s death, when Springwood was at last FDR’s to do with as he wished, he did not wish to do much. Eleanor had hoped she might at last be allowed to alter the house to suit herself, but he dissuaded her. He did have the watercolors that line the upstairs hall rearranged to his liking, carefully supervising their hanging from his wheelchair, and he ordered his mother’s bed moved back into the room in which he had been born because she had asked him to have that done. Otherwise, he left things as they had always been, going so far as to ensure that the descendants of the woodchucks he had pursued in his boyhood be allowed to live on the place unmolested.

Woodchucks still stand sentinel by their burrows all over the Springwood lawns, but there have been many other changes. The sweep of the Hudson that FDR once commanded from his bedroom is now all but obliterated by the tops of trees; the forest road over which the Roosevelts drove back and forth from Val-Kill is overgrown; and visitors who wish to visit Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage must come and go by shuttle bus from the cement parking lot that stretches over her mother-in-law’s old kitchen plot.

But when I wander to the south lawn in the evenings nowadays, after the last visitors have left and the rush-hour traffic on the old Albany Post Road has subsided, Springwood seems most as it must have been in FDR’s time. Blue shadows stretch across the grass, the wind nudges the old trees outside his bedroom window, and I can gaze down through the old apple orchard at the steep slope where he coasted with his father as a boy and up which his coffin was slowly borne on a soft April day forty-two years ago, to be buried in his mother’s rose garden.

Visiting the Roosevelts, Dropping In on the Vanderbilts