Whatever your reaction was to the 2016 political campaign, a visit to Roosevelt House will be both timely and inspiring. Located at 47-49 East 65th Street, the double townhouse was the Manhattan home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR’s mother Sara Delano Roosevelt. Public tours are available on Saturdays at 10:00 am, 12:00 Noon, and 2:00 pm.
Inside the Neo-Georgian building, a tour guide gathers visitors into a front parlor and gives a brief illustrated history of the Roosevelts’ childhoods. Franklin and Eleanor, fifth cousins once removed, married in 1905. Franklin’s formidable mother Sara purchased the house as the newlyweds’ wedding present, but included in her generous gift was a catch. The house would have one entrance but two identical, symmetrical halves. Eleanor and Franklin and their children would live in one side and Sara would reside in the other half. Architect Charles Platt designed the house, which Sara furnished completely to her own taste. She installed two elevators, unusual for the time, and walls with pocket doors separated the two living spaces. As you can imagine, this was a decidedly mixed blessing for the young couple, who moved in with two children in 1908.
Continuing through the house, visitors learn about the Roosevelt family’s domestic and political lives. FDR began his political career there and, in 1921, he returned to recover from polio, which paralyzed his legs. Becoming president in 1932, he planned his first administration and the beginnings of the New Deal in his book-lined library. Eleanor grew from a dutiful wife and mother into a politically active partner and an outspoken human rights leader. Sara lived in the house until her death in 1941, when it was sold to Hunter College.
One of the highlights of the tour is hearing a recording of Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor and the first woman cabinet member, describing her interview for the post with FDR in his library. And even Eleanor Roosevelt devotees may be impressed to learn about the furniture workshop she helped create in the 1930s to provide jobs to local farmers and craftsmen.
Roosevelt House was designated a New York City landmark in 1973. Hunter College used it for meetings and gatherings until it fell into disrepair by the 1990s. Thanks to a restoration completed in 2010, the building retains its stately atmosphere. It’s easy to imagine how grand, yet comfortable, Roosevelt House must have been when the family lived there. With five children, visiting grandchildren, and household staff, it was a very busy place.
Tours are free, with a suggested donation of $10, though any amount is welcome. You can make an online reservation here. And don’t forget to take a complimentary FDR campaign button home with you.
Visiting Roosevelt House, now also known as the Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, is a must for history and architecture buffs, as well as political junkies. How pleased the Roosevelts would be to see their home still busy, useful, respecting the past but looking eagerly to the future.
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By: Lois Farber