NYC's Roosevelt House: History and education

The library at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York is shown. The building was a wedding gift from Sara Delano Roosevelt to her son, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his wife, Eleanor, in 1908. This is where FDR recovered from polio, ran for governor and president and planned the New Deal.

NEW YORK — It's not as well-known as other historic sites associated with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, but a six-story Manhattan town house where the Roosevelts lived for decades is reclaiming its place in history as a living testament to their legacy.

The home was given to Franklin and Eleanor as a wedding gift in 1908 by FDR's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt. Over the years, Eleanor repeatedly visited nearby Hunter College, which was a women's school at the time. After Sara died, the Roosevelts sold the home to Hunter for use as a student interfaith center. Eventually the building fell into disrepair and was closed.

It reopened in 2010 as the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, and now hosts students, scholars, lectures and events. Recent guests have included the Dalai Lama, former President Bill Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The home also is shown in Ken Burns' new PBS documentary on the Roosevelts.

The building isn't a museum; it doesn't have original furnishings. But Saturday public tours show how "the history of the family was all played out here," said Hunter College President Jennifer J. Raab. An elevator allowed FDR to move from floor to floor in his wheelchair after contracting polio; he plotted his political comeback here. He was elected governor of New York in 1929 and ran for president three years later.

The morning after his presidential victory, Nov. 9, 1932, NBC recorded FDR's radio broadcast from the house outlining his plans to lift the country out of the Great Depression. He posed for photos on the front steps, holding himself up on the stair railings. Frances Perkins, who was to become the first female U.S. Cabinet member as secretary of labor, met with FDR in the library to discuss "old-age insurance," later known as Social Security.


"This is where the New Deal was planned," Raab said. "It's a piece of American history."

The building has an unusual structure: a single front entrance opens into two units. Sara lived on the left; FDR, Eleanor and their five children lived on the right. When FDR's mother gave the home to the newlyweds, she "kept back one detail — that she was going to move in, too," said Raab. "Anybody who thinks they have in-law problems, look at this."

Eleanor and Sara's portraits adorn opposite walls in the parlor, which also is decorated with Norman Rockwell posters celebrating FDR's Four Freedoms — freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Black-and-white photographs — some by renowned photographers Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn — illustrate FDR's Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps programs, which ranged from construction to murals to medical care.

This also is where Eleanor emerged into public life as a crusader for women's rights and civil rights. She hosted a luncheon in 1924 at the home with her mother-in-law for African-American civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune. A gathering of prominent white and black women was extraordinary in that era.

Raab says she tells students what FDR overcame, how Eleanor served as "his eyes and ears" and how, as a pair, "they really fought for social justice. We will never have the resources to say we're a museum, but I feel that FDR and Eleanor would be so happy with the way we're giving back."

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