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The Roosevelt trail, from Maine to North Dakota

Ken Burns’ documentary about the Roosevelts — presidents Theodore and Franklin, and Franklin’s wife Eleanor — stired interest in some of the places connected to them.

Here’s a look at some major Roosevelt sites, including birthplaces, family homes, vacation retreats and national parks and monuments from Maine to North Dakota.


THEODORE ROOSEVELT BIRTHPLACE: Theodore Roosevelt lived at 28 E. 20th St. in Manhattan from his birth in 1858 until he was 14. The building was demolished in 1916, but later reconstructed and decorated with original and period furnishings. A free half-hour tour tells the story of Roosevelt’s family: He was descended from Dutch traders who made their fortune in New York (Roosevelt means rose field in Dutch, and is pronounced “rose-velt”), and he was Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncle and Franklin Roosevelt’s distant cousin. A sickly child, Teddy became fit using a gym on a terrace off his bedroom here. Museum artifacts include a shirt with a bullet hole; Roosevelt was shot on the campaign trail in Milwaukee but finished his speech before getting medical care; http://www.nps.gov/thrb/

THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK: This park in the badlands of western North Dakota commemorates Theodore Roosevelt’s sojourn to the region in the 1880s, hunting bison and working on a ranch; http://www.nps.gov/thro/

MOUNT RUSHMORE:  Theodore Roosevelt is one of four presidents whose faces adorn Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Roosevelt’s legacy includes his leadership in conservation, creating national parks and wilderness areas, and preserving antiquities. He was also seen as a fighter for the common man, taking on corporate monopolies; http://www.nps.gov/moru/

SAGAMORE HILL: This was Teddy Roosevelt’s summer White House, where he vacationed with his family. The home, on the North Shore of Long Island near Oyster Bay, New York, is closed for renovation, though a nearby museum and grounds are open; http://www.nps.gov/sahi/


FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM: Through exhibits on Pearl Harbor, “Fireside Chats,” the New Deal and many other defining aspects of FDR’s presidency, this site in Hyde Park, New York, brings to life his leadership during the Great Depression and World War II. But visitors will also learn about FDR’s personal life, from his domineering mother, to his struggles with polio, to his relationships with Eleanor and other women. Nearby National Park Service sites include Springwood, where FDR was born and lived; Val-Kill, Eleanor’s retreat; and Top Cottage, FDR’s private digs; http://www.nps.gov/hofr/ and http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT MEMORIAL: This evocative, unusual memorial in Washington, D.C., consists of a series of outdoor galleries with waterfalls, sculptures and famous FDR quotes such as “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Sculptures show FDR with his dog and FDR in a wheelchair; http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/presidents/fdr_memorial.html

WARM SPRINGS: Warm Springs, Georgia, was known for therapeutic swimming pools that offered relief from polio. FDR, who was partly paralyzed from polio, frequently visited, regaining some of his strength here and eventually building a home known as the Little White House. He died here in 1945 during his fourth presidential term. Visitors can see the home, pools and other sites related to polio history; http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/presidents/roosevelts_little_white_house.html

CAMPOBELLO: FDR had a 34-room summer home off the coast of Maine on Campobello Island, in New Brunswick, Canada, where his mother’s family vacationed. It was here that he first experienced symptoms of polio in 1921. The home is open for tours from late May through Columbus Day (Oct. 13). The area’s rocky shores, trails and driving roads can be visited year-round. A bridge connects Lubec, Maine, with Campobello, but you must have a passport to cross; http://www.nps.gov/roca/index.htm .

FOUR FREEDOMS PARK: This park, located on Roosevelt Island in New York City’s East River, memorializes FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech, made in 1941, extolling freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. An excerpt is engraved on a granite monument near a bust of FDR. The park, designed by architect Louis I. Kahn, is considered a sleek Modernist masterpiece. Its tree-lined plazas, steps and other structures offer vantage points full of symmetry and angled views for seeing the Manhattan skyline. Reachable via subway or the Roosevelt Island tram; http://www.fdrfourfreedomspark.org/

ROOSEVELT HOUSE PUBLIC POLICY INSTITUTE AT HUNTER COLLEGE: FDR and Eleanor received this six-story Manhattan town house as a gift in 1908 from FDR’s mother Sara Delano Roosevelt. A single front door opened into two units _ one for the mother-in-law and one for FDR and his family. They lived here for decades; this is where FDR recovered from polio, ran for governor and president, and planned the New Deal. It’s now owned and used by Hunter College for lectures and events, and can be toured Saturdays, 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m.; 47-49 E. 65th St., New York City; http://www.roosevelthouse.hunter.cuny.edu/tours/

Why the Roosevelts are relevant

In 1969, Angela Lansbury starred as the madwoman Countess Aurelia in the Broadway musical Dear World, with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. The show was a bomb, but Lansbury won the Tony Award that spring and the show is noted for one great tune, a passionate anthem to denial called “I Don’t Want to Know.”

“Let me hide every truth from my eyes with the back of my hand,” sings the Countess. “Let me live in a world full of lies with my head in the sand.” 

I’ve been singing along with Countess Aurelia after the last few months of mind-numbing news: Ebola fever spreading in west Africa; Israel bombing the hell out of the ghetto that is the Gaza Strip; Putin playing Orwellian mind games and attacking Ukraine; black-clad fascists executing hostages in Iraq; President Obama proposing to defeat the fiends by using the same failed strategies that fueled their growth.

Then there were Missouri cops and immigration officers going Rambo on U.S. citizens and desperate immigrants, using military hardware in our undeclared wars at home; electoral analyses that declare Democrats cannot possibly win control of the House and may lose control of the Senate; more evidence of influence peddling and incompetence in Scott Walker’s administration; and an appeals court ruling reinstating Walker’s restrictive voter ID law, just in time to suppress turnout in the midterm elections.

For a while, Countess Aurelia offered me a tuneful escape, but then PBS jogged me out of it with its new Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. This 14-hour epic presented the personal struggles and achievements of Republican Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt and his cousin, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, and Franklin’s wife, humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt curbed the excesses of the Gilded Age and presided over some of the first regulatory laws to rein in the power of monopolies. He was a conservationist who established the National Park system. He oversaw the building of the Panama Canal. 

Franklin Roosevelt responded vigorously to the joblessness and desperation wrought by the Great Depression. He established a system of social security that has dramatically reduced poverty among the disabled and elderly. He mobilized the U.S. and forged the Grand Alliance that defeated Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.

Both Roosevelts came from wealthy families but wielded their power to curb the excesses of the rich. They were combative with opponents and continually appealed to the American people to rally support. (Are you listening, President Obama?) 

Eleanor Roosevelt was a writer and activist, constantly pushing her husband to do more for racial equality and women’s rights. After World War II, she chaired the U.N. committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1948.

The Roosevelts lived during times of economic upheaval, intense political polarization and threats from forces abroad. None of their accomplishments came easily. They made great sacrifices to labor for the public good. Unselfish values, shrewd leadership and persistence fueled their successes.

Eleanor wrote: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

The Roosevelts knocked some sense into me. I need to stop singing with a demented fictional countess in a Broadway bomb and start emulating a real first lady who changed the world. 

I’m working on it.

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