New York

Presidents’ Day Compilation

Presidential history is one of my favourite topics, so in honour of Presidents’ Day, and in case anyone is interested in learning about a few presidential sites for the holiday, I thought I’d throw an updated version of this post up again!

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FDR is one of my favourites, and visiting Hyde Park made for one of the best days I’ve had since I started blogging. The museum is huge, and you get to see the actual office FDR worked in when he was back home (not to mention three of his custom wheelchairs). Highly recommended!

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Not far from FDR’s home and museum, you’ll find Lindenwald, former home of the often-overlooked Martin Van Buren.  Though his presidency wasn’t particularly memorable, his house was lovely, and I’ll always treasure the picture I took with his statue.

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My parents live less than an hour away from Canton, Ohio, so I’ve spent a lot of time visiting the presidential sites around there.  There’s the William McKinley museum with an animatronic William and Ida, and even the Canton Classic Car Museum has a large display case devoted to this famous former local.

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And, the National First Ladies Museum is also in Canton, in Ida Saxton McKinley’s old mansion. Though the guided tour wasn’t my favourite, the museum itself has some interesting objects.

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Also quite near to my parents’ home (though in the opposite direction) is Lawnfield, James A Garfield’s former home, which I visited for the first time last year.  I think Garfield’s story is one of the most poignant of all the presidents, and this National Parks site is definitely worth a visit.

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Though FDR will always be my favourite Roosevelt, I know there are those who are partial to TR.  If you’re looking for a presidential site smack in the middle of New York City, then the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum is a good bet.  The entire house is a reconstruction, but it contains many of the Roosevelt’s original furnishings, and the museum has the shirt Teddy was shot in whilst giving a campaign speech, amongst many other treasures.

 

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Hope this inspires you to visit some presidential sites yourself (I know I’m planning on seeing more the next time I’m back in America!).  Of course, if you happen to be in London, like I am, never fear, as you can visit the excellent statue of FDR and Churchill on Bond Street (though you might not want to get quite as flirty with FDR as I did)! There’s a couple more presidential statues scattered throughout the British capital, so you could make a scavenger hunt of it and try to find them all, or head out to the Kennedy Memorial in Runnymede, which is technically American soil, if you’re really feeling homesick!  Happy Presidents’ Day!

 

 

New York City: Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace

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I know I seemed pretty down on New York in my last post, but it wasn’t all bad.  I ate a lot of delicious pizza, some killer mac n’cheese, and awesome doughnuts from the Doughnut Plant (especially the chocolate chip cookie doughnut, because combining chocolate chip cookies and cake doughnuts is the best thing ever).  I also got a chance to visit Theodore Roosevelt’s childhood home.

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I’m sure you all know by now how much I love presidential history, and of my quest to visit all the presidential sites in America eventually; this was the only preserved presidential home I could find in NYC (there’s a building where Chester A Arthur was inaugurated, but it’s currently just a shop) so it definitely made the list.  I don’t love TR with the same fervour that I do FDR, but a Roosevelt is still a Roosevelt, so I was keen to see it.  The upper galleries of the museum are currently closed for renovation (not sure if this has anything to do with Hurricane Sandy or not…Ellis Island is still mostly closed for that reason, which is why I did not bother visiting it), and there’s not a tonne in the lower levels right now, but it’s free, and they still offer tours of the home, so I really can’t complain too much.

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The house is a brownstone located on E. 20th Street, which is the original location of the house, even if the house isn’t completely original (the decision to preserve it wasn’t made until it was too late, so the house is a re-creation, but Teddy’s siblings were still living when it was rebuilt, so they were able to assist with all the details of architecture and furnishings).  The site is run by the NPS, which I generally consider to be a good thing as the rangers are usually very nice, and the quality of NPS sites seems pretty consistent.  They also have public toilets, which I must say was a real relief (literally) as those are few and far between in New York (in desperation, I even popped my head into a couple of coffee shops, and even they didn’t have toilets, which is just bizarre and unhelpful).  We arrived a little early for the tour, which gave us time to poke around the bits of the museum that are currently there, and watch a short film about Teddy’s life.  Most of the display cases were empty, or just filled with timelines of his life that appeared to have been hastily printed out, but the series of cases to the back of the room held a few things that I really wanted to see.  There was one of his Rough Rider uniforms, which was cool, but it was a bit overshadowed by the ensemble he was wearing when someone attempted to assassinate him.  Fortunately, the bullet was slowed down by his layers of clothing, the copy of his speech that was folded in his shirt pocket, and his eyeglasses case, all of which were on display, complete with bloodstains and bullet holes.  The bullet did go inside his chest but Teddy had a “’tis just a flesh wound” attitude, and refused to go to the hospital until after his speech was finished (and actually never ended up having the bullet removed; probably not a bad decision considering what had happened to James A. Garfield (more on him in a future post!)).  So that was really neat to see.  I also enjoyed looking at some of the Bullmoose propaganda on display, and of course the actual moose head mounted on the wall.  There was also a hallway filled with some amusing caricatures of Teddy, which is always amusing.

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When it was time for our tour, we joined several other small groups of people that had accumulated and followed our guide up the stairs (I believe he was just a volunteer, rather than a ranger, since he wasn’t wearing the uniform like the other employees).  Though there was more to the house when the Roosevelts lived there, the current tour only encompasses two floors of the place, each with just a handful of rooms (brownstones tend to have long, narrow railroad rooms, since space was at a premium – and the house was effectively split in half, with Teddy’s uncle inhabiting the other side, which would have been a mirror image of Teddy’s half).  There was a library, dining room, parlour, nursery, and a bedroom, as well as an outdoor porch that Teddy’s father converted into an exercise space for the boy, as he was famously quite sickly and asthmatic as a child.  We were told how Teddy spent most of his time (when he wasn’t on the exercise porch) in the library, which I found rather depressingly small and lacking in books, even by 19th century standards (especially as the family clearly had money).  There was a cosy looking sofa, however.  The dining room only had one original piece of Roosevelt china (though I’m told Eleanor Roosevelt, who was Teddy’s niece, donated some of hers, so it was technically Roosevelt china, just not from Teddy’s parents).  The parlour was slightly cheerier, as it was quite a sunny room, and housed a fine looking piano and other furniture.  Teddy’s parents’ bedroom was also included on the tour, which included the bed where all the Roosevelt children, including Teddy (or Teedie, as his family called him) were born, and contained an extremely expensive suite of furniture (I guess you had to make the most of the space you had by filling it with really expensive things, since you couldn’t fit in many different pieces.)  So in addition to presidential deathbeds, I can add a presidential birth bed to the objects of interest I’ve seen.

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The tour took about forty minutes, and was air conditioned, which was a welcome relief because New York was extremely hot when we were there (I mention the air conditioning because it was unexpected in a historic property, but I guess since it’s been rebuilt, they have more licence to do things like that).  Though some of the information was fairly basic, I did learn more about Teddy’s childhood, and it was nice to have a chance to see furniture that actually belonged to the family.  There’s a small gift shop downstairs that sells some neat TR memorabilia, like magnets and postcards (I of course snagged one of each), and some books about his life (I definitely recommend The River of Doubt if you haven’t read it yet, it’s about TR’s voyage down a little-explored river in the Amazon, where he and his son nearly died, and is a gripping read). This site was so much more interesting to me than the Morbid Anatomy Museum and I’m sure it will be even better when they finish renovating the museum.  3/5

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New York City: Morbid Anatomy Museum

I’ve finally finished with Berlin!  (I can hear you breathing a collective sigh of relief.)  Sorry to drag it out so long, but I’ve been in America for the past few weeks, sans laptop, which makes it difficult to get much writing done.  But now you can see that one of the places I’ve been visiting is New York City.  I’d never been before (save for the airports), so I was excited to spend a few days there. Because I went with my brother, who has a low tolerance for museums,  I was somewhat limited in the weird attractions I could visit, trying to stick to only one a day (in the end, I didn’t even achieve that meagre total).  Unwisely (in retrospect), one of the places I decided was a must-see was the Morbid Anatomy Museum, in Brooklyn.

Now, I’ve long found their blog quite useful for finding medical museums and various other links to strange things (though not as useful as it could be if they’d simply organise their damn links by location – it is a bitch to search through them all alphabetically as most of the museums don’t begin their name with the city they’re in), even though I was unable to find any medical museums in New York City itself (which is pretty unbelievable in a city that size, and one of the many reasons I prefer London), so I had high hopes for the museum.  We arrived at the fairly nondescript building at noon, just as they opened (the street it’s on is also pretty crummy looking, but must not be that bad, since there was a huge Whole Foods down the block).  The ground floor is devoted to a cafe and shop, which did seem to have many interesting books, albeit at prices I couldn’t afford, and the museum is upstairs and costs $10. I thought that seemed like a lot to pay, but New York museum prices generally seem pretty inflated, so I just rolled with it, and hoped that the museum would be worth it.  As you may have guessed, it was not.

Naturally, you weren’t allowed to take pictures, because that’s how that sort of place works – I assume it’s so other people can’t see how small it is before they visit.  The museum was literally one room.  The current exhibit (which is all that’s there) is on death, so the contents of the room consisted of a few death masks, some spirit photography (where the faces of dead loved ones are superimposed as “ghosts” on a picture), and some mourning jewellery.  The signage was perfectly adequate, there just wasn’t a lot to see there.  To cap it off, the staff were all very self-consciously weird hipsters, and weren’t particularly friendly – the one guy who worked there kept talking to himself whilst we were the only other people in the museum, which I found really off-putting, especially because it didn’t seem like it was something he wasn’t aware of, but rather that he was trying to come across as strange.

There was another room attached, but it was a small library; it had a few taxidermy specimens sprinkled around here and there, and some fantastic books (I know because I own quite a few of them, and would like to own many others if they weren’t expensive and out-of-print), but I didn’t feel welcome enough to sit down and look through any of them (frankly, I don’t even know whether I was allowed to).  I am bearing in mind that their main library is currently closed, so perhaps they have better artefacts in there, as they’re meant to have a permanent collection somewhere, but their temporary exhibit was unbelievably lame.  I admit that I am spoiled by the excellent (and free!) exhibition on death that the Wellcome Collection put on a few years ago, but it’s hard for me to see how “the Morbid Anatomy Museum hosts the kind of temporary exhibitions that very few larger museums can produce” (as per their website), when I’ve seen better at pretty much every other medical museum, regardless of size (and most of those were free or very cheap!).  I know America can do better (for example, the Mutter Museum in Philly, which I adore), so I found the museum, and the price, very disappointing.  There are, however, many excellent places to eat around Brooklyn (I’d recommend especially the doughnuts from Pies n Thighs, and ice cream from Ample Hills Creamery or (the also hipstery, but friendlier staffed) Brooklyn Farmacy), so you might find yourself in the area anyway, but there must be something better to do there than this.  I honestly wish I’d rather just gone to Lorimer Street and snapped a picture in front of a Tree of Heaven or a suitably tenement-looking building or something, so I could pretend to be Francie Nolan (sans the extreme poverty).  I hate to say it, because I wanted so much to like this museum, but it’s nothing special, and kind of a rip-off.  1.5/5.

 

Hyde Park, New York: FDR Library and Museum!

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Kinderhook, New York: Lindenwald – It’s More than O.K.

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Marty and Me. Statue can be found on the main street of Kinderhook, in the village square.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I love presidential history. It probably has something to do with being given The Buck Stops Here by Alice Provensen as a child, which appealed enormously to my love of memorisation, catchy rhymes, and history (highly recommended if you have kids, by the way, though unless they’ve issued a new edition, it might be a bit out of date.  My copy concluded with Bush Sr.).  At any rate, I particularly love the obscure presidents, and picking up trivia on them that I can trot out at parties (hmmm, perhaps this is why I never get invited to parties).  I suppose being in New York, I should have been aiming for Millard Fillmore, but his house was more towards Buffalo, and not at all on our way.  So the Little Magician it was, as we headed for Martin Van Buren‘s lovely home, Lindenwald.

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Upstate New York was in the full flush of autumn when we visited, so the “Careful Dutchman’s” estate was ringed with scarlet and copper foliage, setting off the house to full advantage.  My boyfriend remarked that it reminded him a bit of Osborne House, and in addition to the colour, it does have Italianate features that were added on around the same time Osborne was built.  However, this wasn’t the only connection with Queen Victoria, as you shall see later.  The house is run by the National Park Service, and you can only go inside via guided tour (ugh!) which costs around $5, and is offered every half an hour during the summer season.

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We wandered the grounds a bit whilst we waited for our tour to begin; there is a Martin Van Buren trail around the property which features about ten plaques with details of the Van Burens’ lives, and the operation of their 191 acre farm.  The gravel road that runs next to the modern road at the front of the property is the original Old Albany Post Road, which runs from New York City all the way up to Albany (and we did manage to drive up almost all of it!).

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Other highlights of the estate include a small visitor’s centre, and most importantly, Martin’s mounting block.  Disappointingly for the dirty-minded amongst us, he only used it to mount his horse (No, not like that!  Jeez), since he was only 5’6″, and apparently the ladies took advantage of it as well.  (heh heh)

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By this point, our tour guide had arrived, along with some other visitors, and the tour commenced.  The guide was a ranger, so I’m not sure if he didn’t normally work at the site, or just hadn’t been there very long, because he had a set of index cards to help him, although he did appear to have a good base of knowledge on Martin Van Buren, so maybe he just wasn’t fond of public speaking (I know I’m not).  He was very nice though, and made a point to welcome everyone and ask where they were from.  He explained each room as we passed through, but also threw in a few bonus details about the “Red Fox,” which I appreciated, as it helped elevate things above the standard Victorian home tour, and I even learned a few new facts!

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One of these facts concerned Martin’s son, John, who was given the nickname “Prince John” after attending Victoria’s coronation, and subsequently dancing with her.  There was a portrait of Victoria hanging on his bedroom wall, but I’m not sure if it was original, or added later. Martin himself met Victoria as well, on a trip to Europe after his presidency.  Another connection  (well, not really, as it involves only me) between Van Buren and Victoria is that Martin died in the house, like Victoria did in Osborne House, so I have now seen both their deathbeds!  Which is quite the accomplishment, as far as I’m concerned.  There was a cane lying across the bed, which was given to Martin Van Buren by none other than Old Hickory himself!  Jackson had even had his name written on the cane, so Martin would remember EXACTLY where it came from (as if one could forget being given a cane by Andrew Jackson)!

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Aside from the fun facts, the rest of the tour was fairly standard for an historic home (a bit of gossip about the servants, explaining the domestic details of the house, period furnishings, etc), although our guide managed to regale us with a few more stories specific to the Van Burens, including learning about Martin’s tubercular son and wife, and a detailed description of his political campaigns.

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In the entryway of the home, there was a small case containing some artefacts pertaining to Martin Van Ruin, as his opponents called him, in reference to the financial panic that occurred during his presidency, and the subsequent depression (poor Martin), like a delightful card of him drinking from a champagne goblet.  His opponents in the election of 1840 branded him as a champagne-swilling aristocrat, whilst portraying William Henry Harrison as a humble farmer, when in fact the opposite was nearer the truth.  Harrison got his though; dying a month after taking office from pneumonia brought on by a combination of being long-winded and too stupid to dress appropriately for the weather (I can totally relate).

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There was more to see in the nearby village of Kinderhook (Lindenwald is actually about two miles south of the village) – the best thing was obviously the statue of Old Kinderhook himself in the village square (see picture at start of post), so don’t miss the photo opp! (Side note, “Old Kinderhook” was abbreviated to O.K. on campaign materials, which is one possible explanation for the word, although even at the time, O.K. was also a “folksy” misspelled abbreviation of” all correct.”  The Whigs claimed that “oll korrect” was probably how Jackson would spell it, thus mocking his “down-home” Southern roots.  All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the post title is totally a pun!)  I have to say, the entire village was adorable; I’m adding it to my list of places I wouldn’t mind living.  Just down the road from the village is the cemetery that is Martin Van Buren’s final resting place; he didn’t go for an elaborate statue of himself there (as I probably would have), but a simple obelisk marking his and Hannah’s graves.

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If you enjoy lesser-known presidents as much I do (cue the “Mediocre Presidents” song from The Simpsons “We are the adequate, forgettable, occasionally regrettable caretaker Presidents of the U-S-A!”… although, I couldn’t insult Martin by calling him mediocre after sharing a bench with him), then you should definitely factor in a trip to Lindenwald.  The house is quite pleasant, but I wasn’t going for the house so much as I was the Van Buren trivia (ok, and the statue.  Definitely the statue), and in that, I was richly rewarded.  3.5/5

Lake Placid, New York: John Brown’s Farm

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When my boyfriend and I were first planning this road trip, I decided I wanted to go up to the Adirondacks both to see Almanzo Wilder‘s childhood home, which is about 40 miles north of Lake Placid, and to see the old TB sanitariums in Saranac Lake.  Unfortunately, both these plans fell through thanks to a combination of poor planning on my part (the TB Museum was closed on the one day we were there), and the rather infrequently updated and unhelpful website of the Wilder House (it had the opening hours for the summer season listed, but it never stated when the summer season ended, and then, in mid-October, well after we’d booked our hotels, they posted they were closed for the season.  It would be great if they had just listed the end of the season in the first place!).  So after enjoying a superb waffle and mimosa from the Breakfast Club in Lake Placid, wandering in a few souvenir shops, and grabbing a soft serve from the local ice creamery, we needed to find something else to do.  I’d noticed signs pointing to John Brown’s Farm when we drove into Lake Placid, and was intrigued.  (Just to be clear, this is John Brown the abolitionist I’m talking about, not John Brown, servant and confidant of Queen Victoria.)

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The town I’m from in Ohio is actually quite near to some John Brown sites; his father owned a tannery in Hudson (there’s an Owen Brown Road running through Hudson’s rather posh shopping district), and John Brown also lived in Kent and Akron.  There’s even still a John Brown House standing in Akron, though I’ve never visited it (which is strange, since I went to a university right by it for four years), but the Summit County Historical Society has odd opening hours, and they don’t really advertise their properties.  I remembered reading about a farm in New York in Tony Horwitz’s excellent Midnight Rising (recommended if you want to learn more about John Brown’s life and the events leading up to Harper’s Ferry), but the town it was in was called North Elba, so I never made the connection with Lake Placid (apparently Lake Placid is a village within the larger town of North Elba).  John Brown was a peripatetic man, spending time in Connecticut, Ohio, Massachusetts, and of course Kansas and Virginia, so he only lived at the New York farm for two years, having moved there to support a social experiment wherein land grants were given to poor black families to encourage them to become self-sufficient (which ultimately failed due to a combination of the bigotry of local residents and a lack of farming experience on the part of the settlers).  However, he is buried there, so has taken up a more permanent residence in death.

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We were greeted by the rather paternalistic statue above, having parked some ways down the road, as it wasn’t clear whether we could park in front of the property.  It is run by the National Park Service, who charge a modest $2 entry fee to the site.  After checking out Brown’s grave, which is under a massive rock, per his request, and the graves of a few other men who were killed as a result of the raid on Harpers Ferry, including two of his sons, we headed into the cabin, where we were greeted by a very enthusiastic ranger.  He gave us a detailed history of the farm and the cabin, and pointed out objects of interest in the house.

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These included a daguerreotype of Brown’s son Oliver (who was killed during the raid) and his wife, and a shaving cup made from a piece of the scaffold Brown was hanged from (Oliver seems like he might have been a bit of a looker, but I might just like his facial hair).  The cabin is pretty tiny, only four rooms, especially considering Brown had twenty children, though only half of them lived to adulthood, and some of them were grown men by the time he was living there, so probably weren’t under the same roof anymore.  I’m sure the ranger explained exactly who was living there, as he mentioned how one of Brown’s sons had the cabin built on his behalf to John Brown’s specifications, but the details escape me; not because they weren’t interesting, but because it was a lot to take in.

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I have to mention how nice the ranger was – I didn’t catch his name, but you could tell he was really passionate about John Brown, and wanted to know everything he could about him, which is really great to see .  I love fellow history nerds (we talked for a bit after he finished his presentation, and he seemed genuinely interested in my background in history as well).   I was so impressed with the staff of the National Park Service on this trip, especially relative to the much more reserved (dare I say, occasionally snobby) employees you get at National Trust properties.  Anyway, after finishing exploring the cabin, we headed down to the barn, which had a video about slavery and the Underground Railroad inside.

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John Brown’s Farm is a small site with a fascinating history, and I’m glad we stopped by.  It makes a nice change if you’re tired of all the Olympic and touristy stuff in Lake Placid (although you can see some of the ski jumps from the property, as pictured above, so you won’t be escaping entirely), but bear in mind that it is only open from May-October.  It won’t take you very long to look around, but I think it’s well worth seeing the final resting place of a man who played such a pivotal role in American history due to engineering a link in the chain of events that would ultimately trigger the Civil War.  3/5

Sleepy Hollow, New York: Cemetery Tour and the Old Dutch Church

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In the interest of keeping things as Halloweeny as possible around here, I’m going to go ahead and write about Sleepy Hollow, even though I didn’t visit any museums or historic houses there, so it’ll be a slight departure from my usual review/critique format.  Sleepy Hollow is of course famous for being the setting for Washington Irving‘s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, as well as for various films and a terrible-looking TV show.  Naturally, Sleepy Hollow chooses to capitalise on this; in fact, they only changed their name to Sleepy Hollow in 1996; the village was formerly known as North Tarrytown

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Although Sleepy Hollow doesn’t quite go all out for Halloween to the extent that Salem does (of which more in my next post), there’s certainly no shortage of Halloween-themed attractions in the surrounding area, from theJack O’Lantern Blaze, to Horseman’s Hollow, and Jay Ghoul’s House of Curiosities.  The village of Sleepy Hollow isn’t all that big, so the main things to see are the Old Dutch Church and the cemetery, which offers a load of different tours.  Because the “Murder and Mayhem”tour was already sold out when I tried to book some weeks ago, we ended up on the “Classic Lantern Tour,” from ten until midnight, which cost $25.

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I do love the rare opportunity to venture round a cemetery by night, and I adore the smell of oil lamps, which were handed out at the start of the tour, but I do think I would have preferred one of the specialised tours.  Our tour was more of a generic overview, with stops at the graves of some of the famous “residents,” like one of the Rockefellers (though not John D, he’s in Lake View!)  and of course Washington Irving, but much of it was devoted to architecture, which I would have found more interesting if I hadn’t already been to a variety of Victorian cemeteries.  Our guide told us a fascinating story about some guy whose wife died under mysterious circumstances, and mentioned that the “Murder and Mayhem” tour featured a lot more of that sort of thing, so I think that’s definitely the tour to take if it’s available!  I did enjoy the chance to see inside one of the vaults, which was obviously empty, but still delightfully claustrophobic.

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The only really scary part of the experience was when we were stopped in an area ringed by angel statues, as there were three of them, and I had to keep trying to stare in all directions so none of them sneaked up behind me.  Even creepier is the fact that there used to be four angels, but one of them was knocked over and is currently in storage, or so they claim…  Doctor Who has just made me completely freaked out by the things.

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We’d stopped by the village earlier in the day so we could check out the Old Dutch Church, which was having its annual “Old Dutch Fest,” which meant that there was a costumed guide in the church.  Unfortunately, the church is right by a main road, and there was a lot of traffic noise coming in the open doors, so I couldn’t hear much of what he was saying, but what I did catch, about the role of the church and village in the Revolutionary War, was very interesting.  The interior of the church is quite plain, as you might expect, and there’s no altar. 

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Sleepy Hollow does a nice job of decorating for the season around town, with the highlight being the scarecrows made by local schoolchildren, but there’s also a big Headless Horseman statue in the centre of town, and the local manor house, Philipsburg, also does its part.

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We snapped a few pictures from afar, but didn’t pay to enter because we were visiting the FDR Museum that afternoon, and I certainly wasn’t going to “tarry” around (ha!) with FDR a-waitin’ (which will also be the subject of a future post, don’t worry!).  Sleepy Hollow was the perfect thing to get me in the Halloween spirit (as if I needed help), and the cemetery was pretty excellent, sculpture and mausoleum-wise, and it’s only about 28 miles from New York City (see below), so well-worth investigating if you’re a New Yorker.  I’m really more of a town girl than a city girl at heart anyway, though Sleepy Hollow’s proximity to NYC gives it less of a village feel than I was expecting.  Still, it was nice to walk in the hoof prints of the Headless Horseman…

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Croton-on-Hudson, New York: Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze

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I’m spending my last week in America on a road trip around New England and Upstate New York with my boyfriend, which is pretty neat since these are all parts of America I haven’t visited before.  On the plus side, the leaves are gorgeous this time of year, and there’s lots of neat Halloween events, but the downside is that winter appears to “officially” start in mid-October here, at least as far as small museums are concerned, with the result that many places I’ve been dying to see are already closed for the year, like Grant Cottage, the Pierce Homestead, Calvin Coolidge Homesite, and most crushingly, Almanzo Wilder‘s boyhood home in Malone (I’ve wanted to visit it FOREVER, and was majorly disappointed when I realised I couldn’t).  One event I was able to attend, however, was the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze in Croton-on-Hudson, near Sleepy Hollow.  I’m not sure that I’ll do anyone much good by posting about it, as I believe it’s already sold out for this year, but maybe you’ll enjoy some of my pictures (though, as usual, they are a bit crap), and can use the post for future reference!

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The Blaze was promoted as one of the premier attractions in the Hudson Valley, with thousands of illuminated jack o’lanterns on display.  I’ve been to my fair share of haunted houses, so even with timed entry, I expected a bit of a queue, but the line was stretched from the parking lot to (as I would later realise) the entrance gate across the street, which was pretty insane.  We finally gained entrance about half an hour after arriving, which would have been fine, if we weren’t packed in the actual attraction with hundreds of other people, leading to yet more tedious queueing.  Personally, I’m not that bothered about waiting to get in somewhere, but I get super annoyed if I have to wait once I’m inside, so I was in an irritable mood the entire time.

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That said, the pumpkins were damn cool.  I don’t think they were all real pumpkins, as there’s no way they would have held up for the six weeks the event runs for, but I don’t see how that really matters.  They covered the lawns and the exterior of what I believe was Van Cortlandt Manor, and the front of the house was lit up as well.  After walking under the pumpkin arch at the start, we progressed up a lawn with pumpkin snakes and Venus Flytraps, with a garden of “sunflowers” and (eek!) “butterflies” opposite.

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The manor house was garnished with an array of classic Jack O’Lantern faces, segueing into a gourd graveyard, and the scariest part, Clown O’Lanterns!  There were even working Jack O”Lantern-in-the-Boxes, with a gurning face popping up at irregular intervals.

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There were pumpkin spiders, a massive spiderweb, witches, the full range of Hollywood monsters, and even Native Americans.  The collection of large objects was completed by a clock with working pumpendulum, a tower, and a tunnel of love, and the final garden was turned into a veritable bestiary of zoo animals, fish,  and dinosaurs.  Naturally, there was the requisite gift shop, and stall selling apple cider, doughnuts, and caramel apples, but again, the lines were super long.  Finally, the experience concluded with a trip through the “museum of pumpkin art” which mostly featured headless horseman themed works, in keeping with the proximity to Sleepy Hollow.

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Even though I loved the pumpkins, the whole set-up of the place was incredibly irritating.  I get that it’s a popular event, and they want to let in as many people as possible, but they need to scale their ticket sales way back, as being slowly shuffled along a path for ten times as long as necessary as it actually takes to look at the displays is not my idea of a good time.  In addition, the layout was poor, as the trail went from narrow, to wide, to narrow again, creating a huge bottleneck next to the house, where we were crammed in a claustrophobic crowd, not moving at all for a good half an hour.  I was so annoyed, and I wasn’t the only one, judging from the grumbling going on around me.  Personally, I would introduce cattle prods to take care of those people who find it necessary to block paths for twenty minutes whilst they take photos involving every possible combination of people in their group, but I suppose that wouldn’t be allowed with modern health and safety regulations, so they need to either make the paths bigger, or let in fewer people.  For $20 per ticket, I expected a much better experience.  The Jack O’Lanterns get 4.5/5, but overall experience was only 2.5/5.  At any rate, you get to look at the rest of the photos without suffering through the crowds.  Lucky you!

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