New York renovating house owned by Roosevelt family

$15 million effort aims to restore architectural luster

April 24, 2003|By David W. Dunlap | David W. Dunlap,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- "It isn't mine in any way," the young Eleanor Roosevelt sobbed to her husband, Franklin. "I had nothing to do with getting it and it isn't the kind of house I would have got. I hate it."

And those were the good days.

Recent years have been less kind. For want of money, the Roosevelts' house on East 65th Street, later a Hunter College student center, has been sitting empty since 1992 -- ceilings leaking, woodwork moldering, plaster crumbling -- while its remarkable history has dwindled almost to a whisper.

Now, hoping to restore the building's architectural luster and its place in civic affairs, the City University of New York plans to spend $15 million to renovate it as the home of a public policy institute concerned with social and humanitarian issues -- "the domestic version of the Council on Foreign Relations," said Jennifer J. Raab, the president of Hunter.

Despite the budget crisis, Raab said financing was secure for the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute project. It will come over the next two fiscal years from the sale of bonds by the State Dormitory Authority.

"As a public institution, we need to take care of a college asset as well as a national resource," Raab said. "There will be such a natural, important educational use once the renovation is completed."

`A moral obligation'

The challenge of salvaging a landmark building seems to fit the resume of a college president who spent eight years as chairwoman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. "It's a moral obligation to make this house flourish again," she said. Whether that will involve expansion has yet to be decided.

But the renovation will be mindful of the building's eccentricities, beginning with the fact that behind a single facade are actually two mirror-image homes: No. 47 on the left, where Sara Delano Roosevelt lived from 1908 until her death in 1941, and No. 49 on the right, where Franklin and Eleanor lived, on and off, until they moved to the White House in 1933.

"The doubleness of the house is part of the historic character," said Dr. Deborah S. Gardner, a former member of the landmarks commission who is now a special adviser to Raab. "You've got to respect that."

Sara Roosevelt commissioned the six-story house, between Madison and Park avenues, in 1906 from the architect Charles A. Platt as a gift to her newly wedded son and daughter-in-law.

There was only one string atTached: Her.

"You were never quite sure when she would appear, day or night," Eleanor reminisced many years later.

Sara, formidable and domineering, had seen to the installation of connecting doors to the second-floor drawing room and the children's bedrooms on the fourth floor, allowing her to assert dominion over the fledgling household.

There was barely room enough for both Mrs. Roosevelts, even in a building with two libraries, two dining rooms, two kitchens, two butler's pantries, two laundries, two trunk rooms, two elevators, six stairways and 20 bedrooms (eight for the Roosevelts, 12 for the servants).

Besides the awkward in-law arrangement, the house knew sorrow and tribulation. First came the death of the infant Franklin Jr. in 1909. (Another son was later given the same name.) Then in 1921, Franklin D. Roosevelt returned from Campobello Island, New Brunswick, stricken with polio. The elevators, though not much larger than phone booths, must have seemed a prescient godsend.

Day of jubilation

Jubilation also filled the house, never more so than at 1:40 a.m. on Nov. 9, 1932, when Governor Roosevelt came home from Democratic headquarters at the Hotel Biltmore, where he learned he had been elected president. "This is the greatest night of my life," he told his mother as she greeted him at the door.

Sara decorated her home with "bits of fine porcelain and glass, pictures and pottery, deep chairs and delicate ones," Ladies' Home Journal reported in 1934, including artwork her father had brought back from China and a cast of a sculpture of Franklin by Paul Troubetzkoy. The elevator was favored by her Pekingese, "a very superior dog," the Journal said.

On the other side of the 14-inch divide, Eleanor warmed to the place. "What she did like was that she could have political meetings in the large parlors," Gardner said. "That, at least, was a plus."

So was nearby Hunter College, then exclusively a women's school. One day in 1940, the first lady walked unannounced into the office of The Echo, the college magazine, in the main building at Park Avenue and 68th Street.

"We were flabbergasted," recalled Marian Schomer Greene, a writer on The Echo, in an article written 60 years later for American Heritage. "She was completely alone, without a secretary, Secret Service agent or companion of any kind. She was looking for someone to talk to, she said, and she had slipped into a side entrance." These quiet visits continued regularly for a year.

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