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Road Trip:
Destination Hyde Park, NY

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The Place: East Coast, USA

Your Starting Point: New York City

Your Destination: Hyde Park, New York

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The Road Map

On a beautiful summer’s day towards the end of July, my husband and I took a drive to Hyde Park in Dutchess County, New York. It’s in the Hudson Valley, about 90 miles north of New York City, just the right distance for a short road trip. (If you don’t have the use of a car, it’s close to Poughkeepsie, which is accessible via Metro North Railroad and Amtrak, and there’s a free shuttle bus service to the Roosevelt sites during the warm months.)

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Courtesy of National Park Service/Home of FDR National Historic Site, Official Facebook Page

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Our first stop was the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt, for a guided tour. Springwood, FDR’s lifetime home, has changed little since the 1930s (according to our National Park Ranger guide, who had been studying old photographs).   FDR was born there (you can see the upstairs bedroom), used the place as his “Summer White House,” and was, at his own wish, buried in the Rose Garden nearby. (His wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was buried there, as well, and so were two family dogs, Fala and Chief, should you be so inclined as to pay your respects; it’s a gorgeous setting.) During his tenure as U.S. President, FDR entertained Prime Ministers and European royalty at the site. It was at Springwood that he and Winston Churchill read a letter signed by Albert Einstein, warning that Germany was developing atomic bombs and recommending that the U.S. start a nuclear weapons program: the beginning of the Manhattan Project.

There’s an awful lot to see: some of FDR’s boyhood collection of stuffed birds (he was only allowed to shoot them if he stuffed them himself); the dumbwaiter with a rope pulley that he used to haul himself to the second floor after polio cost him the use of his legs; a rather prescient statue of FDR without legs (that was created, amazingly enough, prior to his paralysis); an early television (which FDR hated; he thought it wouldn’t catch on); his collection of nautical paintings; and original furniture, china, furnishings, all manner of things the way the family left it. The ranger and a volunteer guide did an excellent job of showing our group around the place, putting the personal history in the context of political history, and answering our many questions.

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Courtesy of Home of FDR National Historic Site / Official Facebook Page

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Springwood is operated by the National Park Service; the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, operated by the National Archives and Records Administration, is on the same property. Herman Eberhardt, the Supervisory Museum Curator for the Library and Museum, was generous enough with his time to show us around that afternoon (it is generally a self-guided tour).

This was the very first presidential library, Herman explained, and the only one built by a sitting president under his personal direction. Roosevelt, with a keen sense of history, made sure that his papers would be preserved in one place and available to the public by donating them to the government and creating the library. (Congress partly caught up to him in 1955 when it passed the Presidential Libraries Act, regularizing the process for privately built and federally maintained libraries to preserve the papers of presidents going forward. The Presidential Records Act of 1978 established that presidential papers were public property, obviating the need for subsequent donations of such. But it all started with FDR.)

As the Library was built in 1939 and 1940, at the time there was no need to place FDR’s administration in a historical context; everyone was intimately familiar with the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. But as time has gone on, and new generations have come to visit and learn, comprehensive historical background has became essential. The place was renovated in 2013, with a new permanent exhibition, which Herman curated, and it contains a wealth of information about the man and his times. Annual attendance has doubled since then, and the recent PBS series on the Roosevelts has given them another bump, which is all to the good: Herman and his coworkers want to share the presidential history with all comers. They get students, tourists, and day-trippers, as well as researchers and scholars (who can study documents with the assistance of an archivist in the research room). There’s a lot to study: 400 unique manuscript collections totaling over 17 million pages, and 150,000 photographs. They also have 50,000 books covering the lives and times of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, including FDR’s personal book collection of over 22,000 volumes.

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FDR, Eleanor and family, 1919 (Courtesy of Home of FDR National Historic Site, Official Facebook Page/FDR Presidential Library and Museum)

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So here, we learn about the personal history of the man, born into an old and prominent Dutch family, and the political history as well. An enormous picture of a shantytown in Central Park (right behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art–I could place its location due to Cleopatra’s Needle) floored me; never had a Hooverville seemed quite so close to home.

There are letters from members of the public to the President, some thanking him, and some vilifying him. There’s the assassin’s bullet from a failed attempt on his life. His famous inaugural address, with its almost biblical cadences, and “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” Information about his indulged and privileged childhood; his courtship of Eleanor (a distant cousin); the tensions between his mother and his wife; the fallout when his affair with Lucy Mercer was discovered; the work he did for fellow victims of polio, including the creation of the March of Dimes; his action-packed first term when he pushed through financial reforms and relief legislation; his role in the end of Prohibition; his famous radio addresses (which reporters called “Fireside Chats”); Eleanor Roosevelt’s civil rights activism (and her FBI file); his famous “Four Freedoms” speech (which preceded the even more famous Norman Rockwell depictions).

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Courtesy of FDR Presidential Library and Museum / Official Facebook Page

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The exhibit doesn’t shy away from controversy, either, covering the Japanese American internment and the question as to whether FDR could or should have done more to rescue Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. The section on his disability was really moving; there are only four known photos of FDR in a wheelchair. They’re on display here. It’s often said that his disability was a secret, and certainly it was to some, but Herman thinks it’s something a little more complicated…a bit of a willing suspension of disbelief on behalf of the many, many people who witnessed him being assisted.

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My husband (a physician) was fascinated by the medical records from the end of his life. I really appreciated the display on Eleanor Roosevelt’s human rights work after FDR’s death (and her work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in particular).

If you go, don’t miss seeing his 1936 Ford Phaeton on the lower level; it was tricked out so that he could drive it using only his hands, and also dispensed lit cigarettes like something out of a James Bond movie. Herman told us that he used to do his best to dodge the Secret Service and that he was known as a bit of a reckless driver. After he showed us some of the highlights and answered our questions, he had to leave us to get some work done, but we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the place, which I highly recommend.

You can buy an $18 joint admission ticket to see both the Home and the Library, and, in case you’re planning on sticking around, they’re good for two consecutive days.

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Bellefield Garden, part of FDR’s home, designed by Beatrix Farrand (Courtesy of NPS Park Cultural Landscapes Program/Official Facebook site)

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After several hours of all things Roosevelt, we had worked up an appetite and headed over to the nearby Culinary Institute of America. Not having planned anything at all, nor made reservations, we showed up at the information booth and threw ourselves at the mercy of the staffers there. There was an open bakery that looked inviting, but we took advantage of a table available at the Al Forno Trattoria, the casual section of the Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici (a Tuscan style villa). Bread and tomato soup, eggplant, prosciutto and melon, and a panini to share, along with a bottle of Falanghini did the trick. The students (the entire restaurant staff is composed of students) were terrific, enthusiastic and friendly. You don’t tip them; it’s part of their education to learn how to work in the hospitality industry. They do tack on a %17 service charge, though, to help fund scholarships and student activities…it’s well worth it.

PLEASE NOTE: The campus restaurants close in the summer (from July 25 to August 17), and reopen August 18. Visit www.ciarestaurantgroup.com for more booking information.

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We had a long drive home, so we had to leave Hyde Park that evening. We could have easily spent several more hours in the Presidential Library. We didn’t make it to the Vanderbilt Mansion, not even to see its beautiful gardens. We missed Top Cottage (FDR’s private retreat, where he went to relax and get away from the business at Springwood). We didn’t make it to Val-Kill, where Eleanor Roosevelt used to get away from her husband and mother in law. But we’ll be back. And next time we’ll make some reservations! I’ve heard very good things about Bocuse and American Bounty

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Also in our Road Trip series:

* Destination Laguna Beach, California

* Destination Santa Barbara, California

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Lead-In Image of FDR and Fala Courtesy of National Park Service/Home of FDR National Historic Site, Official Facebook Page

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com