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August 1, 2011 at 02:02 PM

Tour of the Roosevelt Homes in Hyde Park, New York

HDR, Museums, National Parks, US Travel, Weekend Excursions from NYC

A few weeks ago I wrote about one of our more ambitious weekend excursions to Hyde Park and surroundings. In one day we toured the Vanderbilt Mansion, The Val-Kil Cottage home of Eleanor Roosevelt, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Family Home & Presidential Library and the Hudson Distillery in Tuthilltown, New York. This is a followup to my writeup on the Vanderbilt Mansion, and talks about our tours of two Roosevelt homes, Val-Kil, built for an occupied by Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Roosevelt Family Home, where Franklin D. grew up, and he and his wife lived (with his mother) for many years after their marriage (cue the foreshadowing for what would later become years of marital discord).

Copper statues depicting Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt at the Roosevelt Library (HDR photo, click to enlarge)

Although we first visited Val-Kil, I'll start with the Roosevelt home. The Roosevelt family were wealthy descendants of some of the oldest, most upstanding families in New York. The family's wealth was largely sourced from the opium trade, but by the time of Franklin's birth they were focused on more modest, mainstream business pursuits and politics. Franklin Roosevelt was born in 1882 in Hyde Park, New York, where the Roosevelt family farm and estate thrived on the banks of the Hudson River.

The Hyde Park estate was massive, and much of the current town was once owned by the Roosevelt family. Broken up and sold off over the years, what remains is the custody of the US National Park Service, which operates the Roosevelt Home Historic Site, and partners with nearby Marist University to run the Roosevelt Presidential Library.

I won't recap the entirety of Franklin Roosevelt's history here. Suffice to say he went to Harvard, Columbia Law, worked as a corporate lawyer, was Governor of New York and eventually President of the United States during one of its most challenging times, recovering from the Great Depression and entering World War 2. Roosevelt's legacy, namely, The New Deal, Social Security and the repeal of Prohibition, are the topics of much debate today (except ending Prohibition, which is universally celebrated as a Good Thing).

Like his cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin was an avid outdoorsman and active proponent of the national park system. His interest in the nearby Vanderbilt estate led to its being purchased by the National Park System and later used as a Secret Service headquarters during the latter years of his presidency.

The Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, New York (HDR photo, click to enlarge)

Despite his accomplishments in business and government, Franklin Roosevelt lived at the Roosevelt Family home with his mother, the often domineering Sara Ann Delano. Despite his mother's objections, Franklin married Eleanor Roosevelt, his fifth cousin, and the three lived together in a home owned by Sara. These were awkward years, with Eleanor always feeling like an outsider. Franklin Roosevelt's infidelity further isolated his wife, and although she agreed to stay with him, they were hardly a happily married couple. Theirs was more of a complex political partnership, not unlike the Clintons today.

Flag atop the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, New York (click to enlarge)

Eventually, the Roosevelts built a small, modest cottage called Val-Kil, that Eleanor would solely occupy for years after Franklin's death. Despite her later accomplishments and her family's immense wealth, this small stone cabin would be the only home she would ever own.

The Roosevelts were buried in rose-lined garden plot near the family home. Their Scottish terrier Fala, at one time the most famous dog in the world, is also buried nearby.

Burial site for Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt (HDR photo, click to enlarge)

The FDR Presidential Library was the first of its kind, built during Roosevelt's presidency as remote White House while visiting Hyde Park. Many of Roosevelt's famous "Fireside Chats" were delivered from the Library. Today, the Library houses a museum of the life and presidency of FDR, and includes a number of special exhibits. During our visit, there was a history of the Social Security System, a topic of much debate in today's politics.

The Library building is undergoing an extensive renovation which should be completed by summer 2012. Until then the building is open, but the surrounding grounds and entrances are clogged with construction equipment.

Jessica at the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, New York (click to enlarge)

The Val-Kil home is about a 10 minute drive from the Roosevelt Home Historic Site. The tour of the house lasts about an hour, and is much less about the home than telling the history of Eleanor Roosevelt. Our tour guide from the National Park Service was very well read on the Roosevelt family, and is acting as a consultant to a film about the Roosevelts called Hyde Park on the Hudson to be released in 2012. Bill Murray plays FDR, and I assume not for laughs.

Like the other houses on our tour, we were not permitted to take photos inside the home.

Eleanor Roosevelt's legacy is quite accomplished. Not content to sit at home, she is in many ways the model for the modern First Lady, using her visibility and influence to champion a number of causes of concern to her and her husband. She was a tireless advocate for civil rights, education and ending poverty. Appointed by President Truman to as the US delegate to the first assembly of the United Nations, she was drafted to pen the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was unanimously adopted by the assembly and today serves as the cornerstone of the UN's mission.

The Val-Kil Cottage (HDR photo, click to enlarge)

After offering many insights into the life and times of Eleanor Roosevelt, our guide admitted that the most-often asked question was whether or not she was a lesbian. His conclusion that she was not, but directed us to numerous biographies where we could reach our own conclusion. We concluded that it wasn't really important, and we didn't really care.

The pastoral setting of the Val-Kil Cottage (click to enlarge)

The National Park Service offers all three tours as a package for $22. This includes a tour of the Vanderbilt Mansion, Val-Kil and the Roosevelt Home and Presidential Library. Hyde Park is about an hour's drive from New York City, or you can easily take the train to Poughkeepsie and catch a shuttle to the historic sites. If you're looking to get out of the City and enjoy some history among scenic surroundings, its a terrific way to spend a day. I recommend reading up on the Roosevelts and Vanderbilts prior, but even if you don't, you'll learn a great deal throughout the day.

Related posts:

Photo Tour of the Philip Johnson Glass House
Tour of the Vanderbilt Mansion

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