Sunday, August 16, 2009

Visiting Teedie's Home

As promised, I report today on my visit to the birthplace of Teddy Roosevelt. Some people refer to this site as a “recreation,” because the original house was torn down in the early 1900s. According to the ranger, however, it is really a “reconstruction,” modeled meticulously on its neighboring twin at 26 E. 20th Street, which remained standing and had been the residence of Teddy's uncle. It is thus quite an authentic reconstruction.

At 10 AM on Saturday, August 15, 2009, eleven visitors (counting myself) were invited to climb the stairs to view the reconstruction of the two-story home (later expanded to three, though the third floor is not open to the public) that the family of Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. occupied from about 1855 to 1872. It is an impressive house, but by no means a luxurious one. On the first level, there are three large rooms - the Library, the Dining Room, and the Parlor. Teedie, as he was known as a youth, hated the library because it had no windows, the furnishings were dark, and the chairs were upholstered in horsehide which made his knickered legs itch. The ranger showed us a small velvet chair which was said to be the chair Teedie favored whenever he couldn’t take the horsehair any longer.

All the rooms are high-ceilinged – about 15 feet – and each seems typical of a well-to-do Victorian home. The second floor is quite a bit smaller, with only a Master Bedroom, a nursery (later converted after the children were older), and a smaller room that might have served as a very small bedroom. Most likely, after Teedie was born or perhaps after his brother Elliot arrived two years later, the third floor was added. The ranger didn’t say this, but I couldn’t help wondering if it became possible to expand the home because of the riches that were pouring into New York City as a result of the Civil War, a war, by the way, that Theodore Sr. managed to avoid through the common practice of hiring a substitute for a fee of about $300. Years later, apparently, Theodore, Sr. still lamented the decision not to serve, and his son, it is said, never quite got over it either, which may account for his fervent need to prove himself as a warrior in the Spanish American War.

As I left this tour, I couldn’t help wondering where Teedie found the room to establish what was jokingly called the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History, but which became a very real and extensive collection of live and stuffed animals. Perhaps in the servant’s quarters or in some shed on the grounds? Or could it be that his permissive parents found a corner in the library to stash all this stuff? It certainly didn’t have a place in the parlor, as even Teedie was rarely allowed to enter that formal room where distinguished guests were greeted.

My last image was of Teedie just a bit frustrated by this increasingly urban environment he found himself in. As Teedie matured along with his knowledge of natural history, the city he inhabited also grew with geometric acceleration. The population of Manhattan alone doubled between 1850 to 1870, exceeding a million people about the time Teedie’s family moved to 57th Street in 1872. It couldn’t have been easy finding the sort of natural environments he needed to feed his curiosity and deepen his passion. Of course, he was lucky, for down the street from his new palacial home, one of the most acclaimed urban parks in the history of the world had just been completed. You can imagine how he must have reveled at the age of 14 in the wonders of that place, that seemingly natural but brilliantly landscaped contrivance of Olmstead and Vaux, then commonly called The Central Park.

1 comment:

  1. TR is an apt symbol of NY: great in many ways, deplorable in others, opinionated, vital, inexhaustable and always awake.
    "At a time of decision, the best you can do is the right thing. The worst you can do is nothing!" TR