Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Franklin Roosevelt's Hyde Park Mansion

Roosevelt’s mansion offers glimpse at a president’s struggles and successes


President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 35-room mansion in seen in Hyde Park, N.Y.

            The National Park Service Ranger who gave us a guided tour of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 35-room mansion and surroundings in Hyde Park, N.Y., was an expert on how Roosevelt hid his paralysis from the public.

            At the time he started running for public office, Roosevelt had contracted polio and could not walk or stand by himself.

            The public had some primitive ideas then that a handicap was punishment from God or meant the person also was mentally handicapped in some way. Often people with physical problems were kept hidden from the public.

            Even Roosevelt’s mother, a powerful and demanding woman who at that time owned the mansion and controlled the family money, felt he should retire to a private life. Although Eleanor Roosevelt typically acquiesced to her mother-in-law to keep the peace, she did not agree with her on her husband’s future and began to build the contacts that would eventually lead to his political career.

            Roosevelt first was elected governor of New York and then elected four times as president of the United States. Eleanor Roosevelt effectively became his eyes and ears to places he could no longer visit.

            Keeping his handicap a secret was difficult. He needed two aides to get him into bed and into his steel leg braces. To keep the secret of his disability, no pictures were allowed of him in a wheelchair, and steps were taken to make it look as if he could walk. In his home, there were no visible ramps; when he sat, his aides crossed one leg over the other, something he could not do on his own.

            When he stood, he wore steel braces that locked into place. When he walked, he pressed one arm tightly on the arm of an aide, often his son, put the rest of his weight on a cane and swung his legs forward. Ninety-five percent of the public swore they had seen him walk. The illusion worked.

            Educated by tutors, Roosevelt had a protected childhood. He had little contact with other children except for limited interactions with the children of employees on the estate.

            As we approached the house, the ranger pointed out the groves of trees that Roosevelt had planted when he was a child, indicating the tremendous interest he had in nature and how even as president he continued to think of himself as a farmer.

            The house has been beautifully refurnished and includes some items that give special insight into Roosevelt, such as the collection of stuffed birds that he had created as a child. Two hundred of them now are in the Museum of Natural History.

            On the second floor, we saw the room where he was born in 1882. Nearby is his bedroom — his favorite room because of the view of the Hudson River valley. We also saw his childhood bedroom, which later was used by his sons, and the small, plainly furnished bedroom that Eleanor Roosevelt used until she moved into her own home nearby at Val-Kill.

            The mansion served as the family’s summer home after Roosevelt became president, and here he hosted many famous people, including Winston Churchill.

            Roosevelt donated the home and 33 acres to the American people in 1943, with the provision his family be allowed to live there after his death.

            The family turned the property over to the government when Roosevelt died in 1945. It is now a 290-acre national historical site. He and Eleanor Roosevelt are buried in the beautifully maintained rose garden nearby the house.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Benjamin Harrison Museum


Taking a personal look at Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison delivered 50 speeches from his front porch during his presidential bid.
            When we arrived a few minutes late for the last tour of the day at President Benjamin Harrison’s home in Indianapolis, we feared we had missed it. Just as we were stepping off the porch, the guide, an older gentleman, opened the door and was kind enough to give us the full tour.
            An obvious expert on the 23rd president, who served from 1889 to 1893, the guide was eager to tell us about Harrison, who he thought was one of our more unappreciated presidents. He also felt some responsibility to tell the real story of Harrison’s accomplishments as president. We found out later that this docent was not alone in making the re-evaluation and that other sources also were raising Harrison in the presidential rankings because of his leadership.
            Harrison built the home in 1875 and lived there for much of his married life. It is filled with the original furniture owned by the Harrison family. The front parlor has been restored to the way it was when he brought his second wife to live here. One of the rooms was equipped with gym equipment so he could work out and stay in good condition. At a room housing a collection of fans, our guide amused us by demonstrating how women at the time used fans to communicate, including ways they used for flirting.
            The family room was filled with portraits and family mementos. Harrison had come from a family of leaders holding important positions. His great-grandfather, also a Benjamin Harrison, had been an early governor of Virginia and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Our guide played a game of “Do you know who or what this is?” In most cases, we didn’t, except for the portrait of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States and the grandfather of Benjamin Harrison.
            Born in 1833, Harrison had been a successful lawyer when he answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call during the Civil War to raise a regiment of soldiers. At one point, he served as a colonel under William Sherman. Later, he became a senator for Indiana. Early in the tour, the docent described Harrison’s family — his wife, Caroline, whom he married in 1853, and a son and a daughter. Caroline died from tuberculosis while they were in the White House. After her death, he married her assistant, who was about half his age and with whom he had a daughter. His other children did not fully approve of the marriage.
            Harrison gave 50 speeches from the front yard of the house when he ran for president. About 30,000 people came to hear him. The porch we saw was a later addition after he returned from the presidency. As an orator, he was considered very impressive, but in his personal contacts, he often seemed cold. Our guide said that was the result of his being very shy in personal situations.
            The guide stressed that Harrison had accomplished much as president: He modernized the Navy, set aside 13 million acres of public domain for national forest preserves, admitted eight states to the union, signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and opened Oklahoma to settlers.
            As president, he was ahead of his time on civil rights and felt that black people should have the right to vote. Because the states were not furnishing them a good education, he felt that the national government should provide funds to states to ensure good education. He believed that American Indians should be assimilated into the mainstream.
            Harrison died from complications of pneumonia in 1901 at the age of 67 and is buried at the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Friday, April 10, 2015

American Police Hall of Fame and Museum

Police museum houses memorials, displays gear

Identification information on almost 9,000 on-duty officers killed since 1960 is displayed on the walls of the memorial.

            I always go out of my way to see one-of-a-kind museums, so I jumped at the chance to explore the American Police Hall of Fame & Museum in Titusville, Fla. Founded in 1960, it is the nation’s first national police museum and memorial dedicated to law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.

            The centerpiece is a series of walls that display the names of almost 9,000 on-duty officers killed since 1960. Notes by each name indicate the city and state where the officer died. Along the bottoms of the walls, visitors place mementos such as flowers, pictures and personal objects that would have been meaningful to the person being honored. These walls had a strong emotional impact on me because I have worked with so many law enforcement personnel.


A costume from the movie "Robocop" stands on display at the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum in Titusville, Fla

            The next area I stepped into was a bit chilling because it held examples of devices used in executions: a gas chamber, an electric chair, a hanging noose and a guillotine. Posters for the FBI’s most-wanted fugitives were on a nearby wall. In front of the posters was a collection of dozens of billy clubs, nightsticks and blackjacks used by different police forces.

            Want to see how prisoners are housed? A regular cell for two awaits you, and nearby is the old-fashioned bare cell housing a steel ball — the type chained to an inmate’s leg. Several older methods of confining prisoners include an iron seating cage and stocks of various kinds. How one could survive some of them without going crazy was beyond me.

            Why do officers sometimes shoot individuals holding toy guns? A mixed display of real and toy guns demonstrates the problem of telling the difference, particularly when one is under stress and must make split-second decisions. A collection of police cars of various vintages and other pursuit vehicles are on display: a WaveRunner speedboat, an Alaskan snowmobile, motorcycles, an all-terrain vehicle, a Segway and a bicycle. No horses, however, were on exhibit.

            A RoboCop suit from the “RoboCop” movies is on display, along with the police car driven by Harrison Ford in “Blade Runner.” If children want to dress up as officers to have their pictures taken, a variety of uniforms in various sizes are available.

            One display shows how a face is reconstructed from a skull for identification purposes. You can have your fingerprints analyzed at one station. A small room was set up as a crime scene where a killing occurred so that visitors could read some information about crime analysis, carefully look around the room for clues and push buttons to find out how good they were at spotting clues.

            We were turned off by the film for children on staying safe from strangers because its advice seemed at times incomplete. For example, it only stressed strangers as dangerous and did not acknowledge that most sexual abuse is committed by people familiar to the child. At a shooting range connected with the museum, you can fire a machine gun for $40 and shoot a pistol for $10.

            Many walls were covered with law enforcement arm patches; the guide said the museum has boxes of them in a backroom to put up later.

            The museum has given a yearly Officer of the Year award since 1988. Law enforcement agencies submit reports on candidates; the docent indicated that the museum administrators find making the decision difficult because so many officers are deserving. Plaques for each of the awardees are near the memorial rooms.

            The police museum houses two not-for-profit American law enforcement associations: the National Association of Chiefs of Police and the American Federation of Police and Concerned Citizens.

The police car driven by Harrison Ford in “Blade Runner.”