January 7, 2009

Theodore Roosevelt, the Boy, on E. 20th Street

I read with interest Jim Dwyer's article today in the NYT, "Courthouse Mystery as One Rough Rider Replaces Another" about Senator Charles Schumer's quest for more Theodore Roosevelt love. Seems like our senator (we functionally have only one right now) wants more attention to be paid to the only U.S. President to be born in New York, and in this spirit he appeared in downtown Brooklyn last week to announce that a new courthouse there would be named for TR. This caught my attention, because just yesterday I visited TR's boyhood home here in the city, the existence of which was not even mentioned in the article. We have plentiful TR love right here, just north of Union Square and near Gramercy Park.

My visit yesterday to 28 East 20th Street, a recreated house that the National Park Service operates to illustrate the boyhood of Theodore Roosevelt, was not the first place I've visited that commemorates the life of the flamboyant U.S. President. My first encounter with the ghost of TR was at the splendid Menger Hotel (Historic Hotels site) in downtown San Antonio, Texas, the place where Teddy rounded up his Rough Riders.

As a westerner myself, or at least of the Texas flavor, I tend to think of President Roosevelt as a Wild West convert, happiest when shooting exotic animals (a few on display in the house here), camping in Yellowstone, wielding big sticks in an imperialist fashion and riding a big horse. My visit to his home in New York reminded me of another TR - the young and privileged near-sighted boy of the East, raised by a doting, powerful and wealthy Knickerbocker father, one who instilled in him the important value of fairness, and to a lesser extent, by a beautiful Georgia peach of a mom, a woman who bore sympathies with the Confederate South.

As our informative docent led us on a tour of the handsome house that stands in for the original (torn down after Roosevelt's death and then built anew by Roosevelt women and their friends), it was easy to understand young TR's aspirations and the expectations placed on him, but it was also easy to visualize the atmosphere surrounding his sickly childhood. The docent encouraged us to keep our coats on as the place was drafty. I'd get sick there, too. Walking through the five period rooms, with many of the original pieces of furniture on site, gives a good sense of the bustling life of the Roosevelt clan and their wealth, but it's also easy to imagine how someone could get wanderlust and want out.

The house and the tour was much more than I expected. Two large full galleries provide a wealth of TR memorabilia, not just from his youth but from the whole of his colorful career. As the docent explained, my visit yesterday happened to correspond with the 90th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt's death.

Christopher Gray, the Streetscapes writer for the NYT, and the go-to guy on all things about NY streets and architecture, wrote about the house in this article from 2005.

Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site is open Tuesday-Saturday, 9:00am-5:00pm. The period rooms can only be seen by guided tours, available on the hour.

The house is still situated among the affluent. If you have some Roosevelt-type money, enjoy lunch or dinner at nearby Gramercy Tavern or a glass of champagne at Flute. That may be a swell way to toast the memory of everyone's favorite Republican/Bull Moose Progressive.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple. This walk is the second in a series of Presidential-themed walks exploring the role of U. S. Presidents in New York City and in celebration of the upcoming inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. See also A Walk to Grant's Tomb and Morningside Heights.

2 comments:

oldeastsidr said...

The NY Public Library digital archives has a photo of the original building (taken in 1925). The link is http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?711548F .Even then there was a plaque on the front of the building.

Teri Tynes said...

Thanks so much for the link. The original house was actually demolished in 1916, so the picture here would be of the newly-built restoration.