Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site
“All that is within me cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River,” proclaimed Franklin D. Roosevelt during his first month in the White House. After spending an afternoon at his grand estate in Hyde Park, one begins to understand why.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library—on the same grounds as his Museum and former home—is only 20 minutes from Vassar, and well worth the trip. Students will love the immaculately kept gardens and the spacious picnic grounds; history buffs will love just about everything else.
FDR, the only president elected to more than two terms in office (serving from 1933 to 1945), was an avid student of history. An expert on the history of the Navy and the Hudson Valley, he believed strongly that future generations should study his presidency to learn from his mistakes and successes. The FDR Library is the country’s first presidential library, built in 1940 on 16 acres of land donated by the President and his mother.
The Library originally resulted from the Roosevelts’ realization that a separate facility beyond his home was needed to hold the vast quantity of papers he had accumulated during a lifetime of public service. In erecting his Library, Roosevelt created an institution to preserve his papers from all of the varied political offices he held, which ranged from State Senator, to Assistant Secretary of the Navy, to Governor and finally to President. The Library also holds his private collections of books and memorabilia on the history of the U.S. Navy and Dutchess County.
Visitors should begin at the Henry A. Wallace Visitor and Education Center to purchase tickets (only $10) and plan the afternoon. At the recently renovated, air-conditioned Wallace Center, you’ll be able to watch an introductory film on the nation’s 32nd president. After the film, arrange for self-guided tours of the Presidential Library and Museum and Ranger-led tours of the historic home. Also on the grounds is FDR’s famed Top Cottage retreat, which he built in 1938 to “escape the mobs.” Only his closest friends and political allies were allowed at Top Cottage, designed by FDR to emulate the peaceful Dutch colonial architecture found throughout the Hudson River Valley. The structure was planned to accommodate his wheelchair and give him greater independence.
Although some of the information in the Museum will be redundant, it’s worth paying a visit. The building contains extensive exhibitions on the lives and careers of both President and Mrs. Roosevelt. Through the use of documents, photographs and multimedia, the exhibits document that turbulent period of our nation’s history from the Great Depression through World War II. Perhaps more important to Vassar students, the Museum details Roosevelt’s intimate relationship with Dutchess County. While countless volumes have been written about FDR as a national and international leader, not much attention has been given to his life on a more local level, right here in the Hudson Valley.
The connection that Vassar students should feel to FDR is more than geographic. Roosevelt served on the College’s Board of Trustees since 1923, and gave the Commencement Address in 1931. Vassar President Henry Noble MacCracken invited him to join the Board because, as MacCracken put it, Vassar was “in great need of trustees who are neighbors of the College.” FDR’s acceptance of the position began an association between the College and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt that persisted through his subsequent terms as governor of New York and president of the United States; indeed, it was an affiliation that lasted their lifetimes.
Leaving the Library and estate, one gains respect for FDR not only for his many accomplishments as president, but also for the very idea of creating a Presidential Library so that history could judge his tenure. When Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act in 1955, it regularized the procedures initiated by Roosevelt for privately built and federally maintained libraries to preserve the papers of future presidents. The Library reflects the vision that its founder displayed when he spoke at the dedication of the library on June 30, 1941. To maintain archival facilities and records, he argued that a “nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.” Now there’s a cry that all students of history can rally around.