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.

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