As soon as we approached Hyde Park and I saw the town sign adorned with FDR’s silhouette, I knew I was going to love it. I adore FDR (even though he was a bit of a cad to Eleanor) so I’d been looking forward to our visit to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum for some time, and after stressing out about the unexpected government shutdown which threatened to ruin our planned trip, for once fate smiled on me, and the government got their act together enough just in time! (Good thing, as I think I would have cried for about a day if they hadn’t).
As you might have guessed from my remarks, the FDR museum is run by the National Park Service, who charge $9 admission for just the museum, or $18 for the FDR’s home and the museum. There’s also a cottage on the property, but it was already closed for the season when we visited, and Val-kill, Eleanor’s cottage is nearby (though has a separate admission charge) so you can spend quite a lot of time immersing yourself in the world of the Roosevelts, if you’re so inclined (it’s kind of like Roosevelt Disneyworld), but FDR’s house pretty much ate up our whole day, so I didn’t have time to see Val-kill. Hopefully next time! You can wander through the museum on your own, but naturally, FDR’s house was by guided tour only, so I had to subject myself to the torment that is being part of a tour group.
Our group was fairly large, and most of the hour-long tour was eaten up by an interminable talk the guide gave on the walk to the house (I mean, really, at least the ranger at Lindenwald spiced things up with amusing Van Buren anecdotes. The Roosevelt guide was, by contrast, very serious, and didn’t really give us any inside information), so there wasn’t much time left to look around the interior. There were two of FDR’s custom designed wheelchairs inside the home, which is of course worth noting, but another thing that attracted my attention was a large collection of Georgian cartoons, which made me think perhaps FDR and I would have something in common (other than our history degrees, of course).
Once we were inside the house, the tour ceased to be guided, and became more of a free-for-all, as everyone crammed in trying to look around. They divided us into two groups to go upstairs so we could see the bedrooms, all in a row with connecting doors, of Franklin, Eleanor, and his overbearing mother (poor, poor Eleanor). Eleanor’s was pretty spartan, to reflect the fact that she considered Val-kill her true home (and probably couldn’t deal with her mother-in-law popping into her bedroom all the time). We also saw the bedrooms where King George VI and Elizabeth (who became the Queen Mother) stayed during the visit which was immortalised in Hyde Park on Hudson (I’m guessing not that many people went to see it; I was the youngest person in the theatre by a good 50 years when I went).
Only a portion of the house is open to the public; there was obviously a back hallway that was closed off, as well as an additional floor, which I think held the nursery and the children’s bedrooms, as well as maybe the servant’s quarters. Apparently FDR used a secret ramp to get inside his home; it was assembled when he needed it, and then quickly disassembled so that visitors didn’t see it. I feel bad that he had to go to such lengths to hide his disability, but clearly he felt the need to. There were a few outbuildings, I think a carriage house and stables, off to the side, that no one else seemed to be visiting, so I had a peek. It was pretty much just an empty set of stables, with a few saddles and things that had belonged to FDR’s horses. The building was cool looking though.
There’s a rose garden in the middle of the grounds, which are free for the public to visit, where FDR, Eleanor, and Fala (FDR’s Scottish terrier) are buried. Obviously, FDR and Eleanor have a large headstone, so it’s clear where their graves are, but I read inside the museum that Fala was buried in the garden as well, near the sundial, which appears to be unmarked.
There’s also some sort of peace garden just outside the museum, opposite the rose garden. It features a sculpture carved from a chunk of the Berlin Wall, and busts of FDR and Churchill facing each other.
And now, to move onto the museum. FDR himself designed the building, and had an office inside, so it has the distinction of being not only the first presidential museum, but also the only one that was actually used by a sitting president. He favoured a Dutch Colonial style to pay homage to his Roosevelt lineage (honestly, I can’t say I agree with his architectural choice, as I’d probably choose some kind of imposing Queen Anne of Second Empire style Victorian mansion (American Victorian, please!) but to each his/her own), which seems to mean sharply sloped roofs, and a lot of stone. Although it didn’t really look that huge from the outside, the museum is fairly large on the inside, and so densely packed with fascinating stuff that you really do need a few hours to give everything your full attention.
There was a temporary exhibit to one side when we walked in, which we ended up visiting last, though I would recommend probably stopping in first, or, if you’re running short on time, just popping in quickly at the end, as it seemed to contain an overview of the rest of the museum’s collections; the official title is “The Roosevelts: Public Figures, Private Lives.” As I said, if you’ve seen the rest of the museum, it is just a lot of repeat text in here from elsewhere, but it is definitely worth checking out the photographs, both on the walls, and in the little albums scattered around. I happen to think Franklin was pretty adorable as a young man (though I have a weird habit of developing crushes on historical figures…man of the moment is Lt. James Sturgis, who was killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn, as he looks a LOT like Benedict Cumberbatch), and the pictures of Franklin and Eleanor as newlyweds (before he started cheating on her a bunch) are probably the cutest things I’ve ever seen.
There’s lots of other family photographs to be found here, and their sons weren’t too bad looking either (at least as young men…they definitely didn’t age as well as FDR), though they had that sort of sporty air of privilege that you see in William and Harry, which to be fair, FDR probably would have exuded as well had Edwardian styles lent themselves more readily to athleticism (though, I’m glad they didn’t; I much prefer the pasty, be-suited look). I’ll restrain myself from gushing on about FDR’s looks any more, but for those of you who don’t share my odd tastes, no worries; there are also plenty of photos of their travels, and ones taken with various other historical figures of note.
The first room in the permanent galleries (which just received a $6 million revamp this year, woot!) is devoted to FDR’s entrance into politics, and contains some of the best FDR artefacts, including his hat, pince-nez glasses (which he started wearing to emulate his distant cousin TR), and one of the bullets from an assassination attempt made on FDR in 1933 (which he obviously survived, but the Mayor of Chicago was killed). You can even stand at a podium and read out a copy of one of FDR’s speeches in your best upper class New Yawk accent.
The next room was about FDR and Eleanor, including some background on their childhoods, and how they met – they were fifth cousins once removed, and only met once as children, so their relationship isn’t creepy at all (as some people seem to think, anyway). Eleanor was Theodore Roosevelt’s niece (he gave her away at her wedding, as her father was an alcoholic who died young), and as such was part of the Oyster Bay branch of the family, and Franklin belonged to the Hyde Park branch, the branches having split back in the early 18th century. Anyway, lots more lovely pictures here, and interesting stuff about FDR’s time at Groton (private school).
A little annex/video room discussed Franklin’s struggle with polio, and had a pair of his leg braces, which were insanely heavy. For FDR to walk to the podium and deliver a speech, he leaned heavily on both a cane, and the arms of an aide, and swung his hips using the strength in his upper body; his son Elliott later said he’d been left with bruises on his arm for days thanks to FDR’s strong grip. I read with great interest a letter FDR had written in which he described the limitations of his body after polio, and the effect the disease had on him.
Moving on from FDR the man, the museum next detailed the career of FDR the politician, tracing chronologically through his lengthy presidency, with a large room covering each term, moving from the Great Depression into WWII. Honestly, it wasn’t all praise for FDR – the museum tried its best to present a balanced view, and as such had posters and interactives that discussed the opinions of his critics, and they didn’t shy away from the darker moments of his presidency, like the Japanese internment camps, for example. Although you were clearly going to walk away with the overall message that FDR accomplished some amazing things, at least they didn’t try to gloss over his flaws. Of course, it wasn’t all seriousness; plenty of amusing caricatures and FDR themed collectibles were included amongst the displays to lighten the mood.
As we moved into the war years, the displays included much of the correspondence between FDR and Churchill, showcasing the nature of their relationship. There were even a few letters from Stalin, who tried to crack a few jokes, but it’s difficult to reconcile a lighthearted Stalin with the mass-murdering dictator we all know so well. I especially loved looking at the drafts of FDR’s wartime speeches, with hand-written corrections and notes. This is why you’ll need loads of time to look round the place; there’s a tonne of stuff to read!
As I mentioned earlier, FDR actually had an office inside the building that would become the museum, and you can of course look inside, though the room is behind glass. Another one of his wheelchairs was in here, along with some of his art collection. A statue of Fala is also pictured below, which was in the museum, but perhaps should have been in the office, to add a whimsical touch.
We finally reached the end of the first floor, but there was still a basement to explore, which I was dreading in a way, as the upper floor had taken us up to 1945, and I knew FDR’s death would be coming soon (this is why having a good knowledge of history can sometimes be unfortunate, as you know exactly when people are going to die). Of course, FDR developed his “terrific headache” as soon as we walked down the steps, and that was it for the poor guy. Massive cerebral hemorrhage, followed by equally massive outpouring of grief on the part of the nation. They had a few sympathy letters written to Eleanor by members of the public, and I have to confess that I was tearing up a little as I read them.
FDR’s desk has also been preserved, and is sitting in the centre of the room for all to examine. The man evidently liked knickknacks as much as I do, as his desk was absolutely crammed with them, and also had pictures of his sons in uniform (though no picture of his daughter, don’t know why). The other basement rooms had other war-related materials, and there was an exhibit on Eleanor and her post-FDR life, which I was glad to see, as I really do like Eleanor very much. The rest of the building is the library and archives, which I believe are free to use, though you have to make an appointment, so I couldn’t peek inside. They did have a few highlights from the archives on display, FDR’s car, and some of his art and furniture collections, which I guess are not really what I think of when I hear the word archives. Neat.
Back inside the visitor’s center, there was more information on the construction of the house, and a rather magnificent tiled floor depicting all the Roosevelt properties in Hyde Park. Naturally, I stopped in the “New Deal Museum Store” (ha!) and managed to resist the allure of the FDR dolls (I already have a talking one (with airplane boxers!), though the dolls were awfully cute), though I did succumb to a FDR badge and a few postcards. I would like to see them improve their postcard selection, and have some made of the Franklin/Eleanor honeymoon photos, as I think those would go down a storm.
I think it should be fairly obvious that I’m crazy about this museum. I’m sure it helps that I already was a fan of FDR, but I think anyone with an interest in presidential or American history would find the museum enthralling. I do think they need to work a bit on their home tours (and if you’re short on time/money, I would just go see the museum), but I enjoyed this museum so much, I really can’t give it anything less than 5/5. I was walking around with a giant, stupid grin on my face the whole time I was there, which is very unlike my usual sourpuss expression. Also, the grounds are gorgeous, especially in the autumn, which was when we visited, which just enhances the experience even more. Really and truly a must-see.