It’s starting to get cold outside, minus a few anomalous spurts of warmth, and spending time indoors is no doubt starting to sound much more appealing to you. The only problem with staying indoors is finding an activity that doesn’t involve your bed, an uncouth amount of junk food and Netflix. Fortunately, if you can rally yourself from your fifth binge-watch of “House of Cards” and get moving, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Mansion, Museum and Library offer a great opportunity to get away from Vassar and see what the rest of the world has to offer. Additionally, if you’re the type of person that finds “House of Cards” interesting enough to binge it five times, you’ll love FDR’s mansion.
Located a short drive north of Vassar in the incredibly scenic Hyde Park, the Springwood estate lies nestled along the edges of a small forest. Purchased in 1866 by his father, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was born and raised at the mansion. Even long after his childhood, at the apex of his political career as the 32nd President of the United States, FDR remained fond of his childhood home, taking many trips away from Washington to vacation or visit with family and close friends.
Inside the mansion, through which guided tours are still offered on a regular basis, Roosevelt’s relatives have done their best to preserve the furniture and items that Roosevelt himself used and of which he was fond. Hanging on the walls are FDR’s favorite paintings and photographs of him growing up on the estate.
Constructed in the early 1800s, the mansion features the architectural style of the time, minus some improvements made by FDR. You can wander through the narrow corridors and the cramped stairways that were built with people a couple inches shorter than you in mind. One of the more interesting diversions are the various servants’ stairwells and corridors—designed so that the servants could traverse nearly the entire house without needing to disturb any of the guests the Roosevelt’s may have had over. There are entirely separate stairwells, that you can only reach by going through doors disguised to look like the rest of the wall, that run between well-trafficked areas, such as from the kitchen to the dining room.
In the study, his desk is arranged in the same way that Roosevelt had it during his time there, along with letters he himself wrote and read spread on its surface. It offers a brilliant little glimpse into the life of the only American president to serve more than two terms in office—who helped the nation out of the Great Depression and through the years leading up to World War II—and his struggle with his own disability.
After he contracted polio in the 1920’s that left the use of his legs extremely difficult and painful, Roosevelt would often return to the mansion during times when the disease was particularly difficult. The secluded estate allowed him to hide from the cameras and gossip of political life in the relative peace and beauty of the Hudson Valley. It is from here that FDR held many of his popular “fireside chats” on public radio, often sitting in his wheelchair shaking with pain while talking calmly to the American public.
It was only here at his childhood home that FDR would allow himself to use a wheelchair rather than strap metal braces to his legs in order to be able to walk and make formal appearances as president. Allegedly, he took such care to present himself to the public as a hardy, able-bodied president that he was never photographed in his wheelchair by anyone but an immediate family member. Nor was he ever seen in public struggling to walk or function normally, no matter how much pain it caused him.
In addition to its sentimental value as the home of a lauded president, the estate also plays host to one of only 13 presidential libraries in the nation—of which FDR’s is the first to be created and opened to the public. It is also the only one that has been used by the president whose documents are housed within, making it a very unique collection—particularly if you manage to take a look at the documents dealing with the Second World War.
The library was actually built by Roosevelt himself, who believed that the American people—and particularly future presidents—had a right to see the correspondence and memoirs of their presidents. Housed within are the vast majority of documents and letters that Roosevelt wrote or was involved with during his entire political career—from his start as a New York senator all the way to his Presidency. Copies of his legislation and his speeches join his personal documents in a vast body of literature available for study. Since Roosevelt’s death in 1945, the contents of the library have expanded to include the works of others close to FDR, such as his wife Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as video and audio recordings and photographs.
Attached to the library is a museum that Roosevelt had built not long after the library. The museum features a variety of displays about Roosevelt’s presidency and the various records and items he left behind. Political conferences and field trips are often held in the new theater and conference rooms that were built when the library was renovated in the early 2000’s. If the tour through the mansion or library leave you a little famished, there’s a quaint little cafe to grab a small snack—albeit at pre-New Deal prices—where you can sit and eat next to life-sized bronze sculptures of FDR and his wife Eleanor reclining at a table outside the museum.
Both the library and the museum are a short 100-yard walk from the front step of Roosevelt’s mansion, though the trip between them may take a bit longer.
In the spring and fall, the natural beauty of FDR’s estate takes over as the trees and flowers in his gardens are in full bloom. The gardens themselves are quite beautiful, kept well-tended by the estate managers and featuring various statues and sculptures to get lost admiring. But with the library, museum and mansion all vying for your attention, you’d be hard-pressed to exhaust everything there is to do indoors in just one visit.