A presidential landscape

A two-hour scenic ride north of New York City, a visit to the home of FDR, the 32nd president of the United States, is both educational and inspirational.

Springwood 370 (photo credit: Richard J. Garfunkel)
Springwood 370
(photo credit: Richard J. Garfunkel)
Nearly 70 years ago, the 32nd president of the United States passed away on April 12, 1945, in Warm Springs, Georgia. A day later, the long rail cortege headed up north to Hyde Park, NY, the ancestral home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, where he had chosen to be buried in a small garden northeast of his residence, high above the majestic Hudson River. The nation openly grieved; as it would do again two decades later for another president, John F. Kennedy.
On April 15, 1945, FDR was laid to rest at his New York home in the southern section of a large rectangular grass plot with a border of perennial flowers; it was only a few weeks before Germany’s surrender.
Every year, about 110,000 visitors flock to the FDR home, museum and library, on Route 9 (the Albany Post Road) two miles south of the town of Hyde Park, and four miles north of Poughkeepsie, NY. This complex stands as the nation’s first presidential library, as FDR was the first president to give his presidential papers as well as all his other papers to the government.
Beginning with the presidential election of 1932, Hyde Park became synonymous with FDR. Whether vacationing, or conducting the business of state, Roosevelt’s every move was chronicled by newspaper and radio reporters.
For those travelers heading to New York City, who may want a respite from Manhattan glitter, and who want to inhale history and the life of the man who led America and the world to the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers, a day or even two spent here and at the nearby stately mansions are well worth the two-hour drive from Gotham Town.
Close by are, the library home of Eleanor Roosevelt known as Val-Kill; the Vanderbilt Mansion, perhaps the grandest of all the homes on the Hudson River; and Wilderstein, the home of FDR’s cousin Margaret Suckley. The latter is located in Rhinebeck, NY.
Having lived in Chappaqua, NY for a number of years, I visited the FDR museum several times. After all, from the first moments of memory and understanding and for about a half dozen years FDR was the only president I knew – he ran and was elected for four terms, (1932-1945) and was succeeded at his death by his vice president, Harry S. Truman, (1945-1953). To remind the reader of Roosevelt’s popularity, it was said that he was one of the few presidents where one could find his picture in the homes of a vast number of Americans.
I love going up to Hyde Park in the fall when the foliage is great, when the trees are ready to shed their just-turned red, yellow-orange and pale green leaves in thick forests along the way.
Driving from New York City is easy enough and offers beautiful views along the Saw Mill River Parkway and the rolling hills of the Taconic State Parkway up to Poughkeepsie, past Marist College and the Culinary Institute into the village of Hyde Park.
The area is also easily accessible by train from Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.
Ride along the richly historic and romantic Hudson River and arrive in Poughkeepsie which is the county seat of Dutchess County where Hyde Park is located, at only about a two-hour trip. The Roosevelt Ride free shuttle service goes between the Poughkeepsie train station and Hyde Park. But you must make a reservation for the shuttle service by calling 845-229-5320.
Visitors first enter the complex at the Wallace Center named after Henry A. Wallace, the vice presidents of the US (1941-45). The center houses the museum store, café, meeting rooms and audio visual center. Then onto the library and museum which contains a vast collection of materials relating to FDR’s private life, family backgrounds, his special interests, such as his model ships, huge stamp collections, and a vast number of books.
The desk FDR occupied in the White House is one of the first artifacts on display when entering the museum, complete with its telephone and additional memorabilia.
One can hear his famous first inaugural address while in the midst of a deep economic depression, he uplifted millions with his words that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” His fireside chats delivered on radio inspired the nation during the depression and World War II.
“Every element of the museum is worthwhile and interesting,” said Richard J. Garfunkel of Boynton Beach, Fl, radio host, FDR raconteur and collector. For example, after FDR became president, he received numerous gifts and books from authors, publishers and art objects, prints and paintings, sound recordings, motion pictures and thousand of photos of subjects relating to his life. And they are all here and in the research sections.
Of interest to Jewish visitors is a 200-yearold torah presented to Roosevelt by the National Council of Young Israel. The torah scroll is said to have been rescued from a burning synagogue in Czechoslovakia after the Nazis took over in 1938, and a map of Israel in the form of a gold plaque mounted on a board which was presented to Mrs.
Roosevelt by the State of Israel Bonds, according to A Jewish Tourist’s Guide to the US. A large papier mâché caricature of Roosevelt in the form of “The Sphinx,” which was exhibited at Gridiron Dinner in Washington, in 1939, is a humorous commentary on FDR’s refusal to say whether he would seek re-election in 1940. He did and won.
Leaving the museum and library, one passes the Rose Garden and the grave-site of the president and his wife, Eleanor (1884- 1962). The latter visited Israel several times.
Many realize the life and times of FDR when they visit his home, the house known as “Springwood,” – where he was born on January 30, 1882, the only son of James and Sara Roosevelt.
Of course, he often came to Hyde Park while waging his long fight to conquer infantile paralysis which he contracted in 1921. The visit to “Springwood” reminded me of his battle, for in FDR’s dressing room, I spied his homemade wheelchair and naval cape. As a youngster at the time, I and my friends never realized the extent of Franklin Roosevelt’s disability. Essentially a paraplegic, he had no use of his legs.
FDR often delivered radio addresses from the Living Room which occupies the lower floor of the south wing of the house. It is said that in this cheerful and spacious room, the Roosevelt family met, played, read and entertained. The dining room is dominated by heavy, dark pieces of furniture.
But it is the boyhood bedroom on the second floor and at the end of the hallway, one can see that he surrounded himself with his favorite pictures, naval prints and family photographs. His dog, Fala, had his own chair and one observes the scottie’s leash and blanket. And if you heard that famous Fala speech in 1944, you never forgot the president – the consummate politician – intoning: “These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me or on my wife, or on my sons... No, not content with that, they now include my little dog Fala.”
The opposition could never beat him. He also served as state senator, assistant secretary of the Navy, New York state governor, before his terms as president.
Garfunkel, who has interviewed numerous Roosevelt scholars on his radio show, said, “FDR was home taught until age 14 and his mother lived in the house as a widow for decades until her death when FDR inherited the home, planned and built his office and library and at his death gave it to the people of the US.”
Sometime during the visit to this outstanding presidential complex, one will look down at the magnificent Hudson River and recall FDR’s words: “All that is within me, cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River.”
For group arrangements and information on the Roosevelt home-library, Val-Kill and Vanderbilt Museum, call 845-229-9115 for the National Park Service. The home, library and Vanderbilt Museum are open seven days a week from nine am to five pm.
Guided tours are offered throughout the day with the last tour at four pm. Val-Kill is open May through October seven-days a week, but November through April, it is open Thursday through Monday. All sites are closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Years Day.
The author is a journalist, travel writer and has just published the novel Klara’s Journey and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond. Visit his blog at www.bengfrank.blogspot.com – Twitter @bengfrank