Presidents: Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site, New York City
Visited in 2007.
Theodore Roosevelt was born here! The sign proves it!
It's a bad photo but to be fair it's just a replcia building.
In October 1912, campaigning for the presidency in Milwaukee, Teddy Roosevelt got shot by an anarchist. The bullet was slowed down by his overcoat and two things in that overcoat: a copy of the speech he was about to give, and a glasses case. But the bullet still lodged in his chest.
If I were shot by an anarchist, I'd immediately take the rest of the day off. I wouldn't care if there was a conference call scheduled for 3 p.m. I would go home, and honestly, I would probably take the next day off as a "me" day.
Teddy Roosevelt, on the other hand, stopped the crowd from lynching his shooter, declined medical attention (the bullet was in him for the rest of his life) and decided to go ahead and speak for the next hour. Over the rest of that day, he set the world record for push-ups, boxed all comers (including a kangaroo) in a driving rain storm and then wrote a 500-page history of the day's events. He was THE MAN.
You can see the shirt, glasses case and speech (all with bullet holes) on display at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace in lower Manhattan. (It's on 20th St., which in the 1860s was the suburbs). The building isn't original, but it's a pretty close re-creation, right down to the small Starbucks in the basement. The National Park Service operates the site, so there's excellent quality control. A few of the rooms have been converted to gallery space, but the tour takes you through the parlor, the dining room and a few of the bedrooms. TR lived there until the age of 14, at which point the neighborhood was starting to go to crap. (Dirty Irish immigrants and whatnot were moving in.) The family moved to 57th St. (which in the 1870s was a lot like "Land of the Lost").
But the formative years of our most dynamic and fun-loving president were spent right there on 20th St. (And also on overseas vacations, and at the Roosevelt summer home, and swimming in the Roosevelt money bin, but who's counting?) We generally think of TR as a robust dude, but he was born a mewling asthmatic -- he had to earn his toughness. His dad installed a home gym just off TR's bedroom, and with only 5 minutes a day, three days a week on a Soloflex, he could rip phone books in half one-handed. Why did the Roosevelts have a phone book and a Soloflex machine before the invention of the phone or Soloflex? THAT'S HOW RICH THEY WERE.
According to the park ranger, Roosevelt's life was mostly an effort to impress his loaded philanthropist dad, who died when TR was 19. Even as president of the United States, he never felt he quite lived up to that example. So, dad: if you're wondering why I'm not motivated to become the leader of the free world, it's your fault a) for not being obscenely rich and b) not dying when I was a teenager. Way to deprive the country.
Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, Buffalo, New York
Visited in 2009.
And here you thought Buffalo was a Grover Cleveland town.
Roosevelt was apparently sworn in at the HQ of Sig Ep.
The re-creation of the parlor where the modern presidency began.
An ominous close-up of a table. Admit it, you're intrigued.
And now a writing desk! My god, what was written there?
Two great Americans put their heads together.
The modern presidency, in which one man is expected to solve all the problems of the world in eight years or less, was born in Buffalo. The man of the hour was Theodore Roosevelt. The man of the previous hour, William McKinley, had just died about a mile away. Wearing a borrowed suit and surrounded by McKinley's cabinet (but no photographers), TR took the oath. He promised to do exactly what McKinley would have done, and then over the next three years trampled on all sorts of things that McKinley wouldn't have touched with 50-foot pole.
All this magic happened in the parlor of the Wilcox mansion on Delaware Street. Wilcox was an old friend of Teddy's from their days in the New York Assembly. It was also Wilcox's suit that Teddy was wearing. He had rushed to Buffalo so quickly from his family vacation in the Adirondacks that he didn't have time to pack. Today, the structure of the Wilcox mansion is original, but the "inauguration room" is a re-creation. After the Wilcoxes died in the 1930s, the place was converted to a restaurant for about 20 years. Presumably, you could request a table roughly where Teddy Roosevelt was inaugurated. Suck on that, Olive Garden.
The site is operated by the National Park Service as the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site. And it's a shiny site at that. Renovations were completed in 2009 -- which means there are touch screens, and lots of them. Usually I don't go for that stuff, as I am not eight years old and I don't mind reading. But I have to say I liked it. They start you off with a ton of stuff about the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. Roosevelt had attended the ceremonial opening, and McKinley was visiting the exposition when he was shot in September 1901. There are old Edison kinetoscopes of the exposition grounds, and it was astonishing. A century ago people would actually build ornate, disposable cities, and things like electric lights were novel enough to be a draw. Remember that the next time you're bored with your Nintendo.
Beyond that, there's a nice overview of the America Roosevelt was facing, his plans for world domination, etc. etc. and so forth. The highlight still has to be the parlor, with one close second. When I visited, upstairs they had a replica of TR's White House office, complete with desk, camera and e-mail capability. So I took a picture behind the desk, and the Park Service e-mailed me a newspaper "front page" where I was the president. This is clearly meant for elementary school students but the printout was hanging in my work cubicles for probably about 15 years. I'm cool like that.
Sagamore Hill National Historic Site and Youngs Memorial Cemetery, Oyster Bay, New York
Visited in 2009 and 2019.
Sagamore Hill, TR's home-sized man cave.
The big dead-looking (as of 2019) tree dates to the Roosevelts.
You can see the pontificating part of the porch, with no railing.
The "hill" in Sagamore Hill.
I can't show you dead animals on the inside, but they're also on the outside.
TR had dreams of one day turning his home into a Cracker Barrel.
The Old Orchard home, a separate mansion where TR's son Theodore lived. (Now a museum.)
The boardwark over Eel Creek gave the Roosevelts beach access.
It's called Oyster Bay for a reason. The shells are everywhere.
Youngs Memorial Cemetery: The 26 steps leading up to TR's grave.
The grave of TR and Edith. Look through the trees and you can spot the bay.
Mount Vernon has been called the autobiography Washington never wrote. Sagamore Hill, then, would be the comic book Theodore Roosevelt never drew.
The most interesting man in America had his passions, and judging from his house in Oyster Bay, NY, they exploded all over the walls. You can't swing a big stick without hitting a dead animal, a bookshelf or something that might have killed a dead animal. It really is the house that TR built. He bought the property from his extended in his early 20s, while on the honeymoon for his first marriage. He had the house constructed from scratch -- it work was continued after after first wife died -- and he clearly had a heavy hand in the interior decorating. (He did not care so much about the exterior, which for those scoring at home is in the Queen Anne style.)
It was a warm-weather residence at first -- the family also had digs in New York City, Washington, or wherever they happened to to be living that year. But it became Roosevelt's year-round home, the "summer White House" and a Theodore Roosevelt museum. It's clunky, kind of tacky and FUNDAMENTALLY AWESOME.
I got to visit on July 5, 2009, with a group of intrepid friends, who put up with a lack of coffee and me being a b****. Yes, I made sure we were there for the first tour of the day, meaning we showed up before opening time. We had to have a park ranger unlock the carriage house, where Roosevelt kept his vending machines, just to keep blood sugar levels high enough to keep my friends from mutiny. But what a tour it was!
The guide was awful. I have visited almost all the presidential homes, and the guide at Sagamore Hill in 2009 still stands out in my mind as the worst guide I've ever had. He was an older guy -- a volunteer for the National Park Service, from New York. We had about an hour to check out the home of one of America's most influential, dynamic and charismatic leaders, and about 15 minutes were used up by the guide talking about:
- The guide's loathing of hunting and killing animals, and how seeing the animals in the house was upsetting.
- The guide's hatred of war, and how seeing the trophies from Roosevelt's military career was upsetting.
- How the guide found Sarah Palin to be a lunatic and how Barack Obama was "mesmerizing."
- How the guide's nephew was serving in Iraq, which segued again into how he hated war.
- The time the guide's wife gave a bunch of his stuff to the Salvation Army without him knowing.
- The guide's many failures as a tour guide, like the time he lost track of a bus driver who tried to open up a gun cabinet in Roosevelt's third-floor hideaway.
He didn't wait for the group to arrive in any room before he started speaking, he couldn't answer a few basic questions about items in the house and he complained a few times how there were 15 people in the tour group, when there were 12 of us. The highlight was a delightful yarn (while showing us the kitchen) about how he had to watch a chicken get clubbed to death when he was visiting rural acquaintances. I don't remember the details, as they were clouded out by my urge to club our guide to death with a chicken. Let's just say that, even as a volunteer, he was clearly getting paid too much.
I made a return visit in 2019, and while they're still using volunteer guides, I am happy to report that 10 years was long enough to wait out the retirement of Johnny McChickenclubber. This time out I had a delightful lady who enjoyed talking about Roosevelt's taste in art, and his relationships with the artists whose work is on display in the house. (Fun fact! Sagamore Hill features several carvings of the presidential "eagle" seal, and TR hired Gutzon Borglum to make them. Borglum went on to "sculpt" Mount Rushmore.)
All this being said, however you fare in the game of volunteer roulette, the house itself tells you everything you need to know.
Naturalist. From his earliest days, Teddy Roosevelt was a great naturalist, and he expressed his profound love of nature by killing and stuffing large portions of it. Every room has some kind of animal-skin rug, complete with the heads, to the point where it's hard to imagine how visiting dignitaries didn't trip on gaping animal maws. In fact, I'd rather imagine that they did, because it makes history that much funnier. We counted a polar bear, a grizzly bear, a tiger, a zebra and one Spanish soldier. Every non-bedroom had mounted animal heads: moose, deer, African herd animals, a warthog, William Jennings Bryan. There were about five elephant-foot wastebaskets, a few pairs of mounted tusks, and a banister made from a giraffe's spine. (Spot the lies!) Beyond the animals, the estate itself is a nice spread -- hills and woods rolling right down to Oyster Bay, where Roosevelt had a private beach. He took his kids on camping trips along the shores of the bay, and whenever possible he ditched the Secret Service to take his wife out rowing. He was our first president to live in a beach house, and for this we must adore him.
Family guy. Peeking in the kids' rooms, it's like a sitcom: the teenage daughter's room is all prissy, one of the son's room's was packed with skis and snow shoes and college pennants ... If he were alive today, TR would almost definitely have his own reality show, and in one episode Alice would make out with a Japanese diplomat. It would be awesome.
Showman. As if the animal heads weren't enough, there's one phenomenal room in the mansion: a two-story addition to the house that's part museum, part rec room. Some of the coolest swag from his career was on display. This includes, placed across the antlers of one animal head, his sword and hat from his Rough Rider days. There's also a near life-size portrait of TR in his Rough Rider uniform hanging by the door. (TR's military uniform wasn't standard issue; he had a bespoke uniform made by Brooks Brothers, because if you're going to kill people you should look dashing doing it.) It's an alpha male kind of room, where you would hang your 72-inch flat screen TV, keep your vintage pinball machine and maybe a kegerator. You can't NOT be impressed, and Teddy Roosevelt absolutely had that it mind. One other fun showy detail of Sagamore Hill: On the wraparound porch, the railing is missing in one section, at TR's behest. When crowds would hoof it up the hill to stand on his lawn and hear him speak, he wanted to be as close as possible, with no barriers between him and his audience. Anyone who has tried to do stand-up comedy behind a podium completely gets this.
Nerd. There are books everywhere. Roosevelt's study (the de facto Oval Office a few months out of the year) is lined with them, they're all over the "rec room" and they're even crammed in odd spaces. The bedroom where Roosevelt died has a bookshelf mounted almost on the door frame -- as though they saw a few square inches of space and HAD to fill it. Like any self-respecting nerd, Roosevelt had a hideaway: a room on the top floor where he could be alone with his thoughts, and some animal heads, and his collection of antique swords, and a giant grizzly bear rug. Yes, Teddy Roosevelt was king of the nerds. And king of the jocks. But not king of the jungle! There were no lion heads in the house, and he died from health complications picked up in the Amazon, so it's safe to assume that the jungle kept its crown.
If the house is missing anything, it's signs of Edith. Roosevelt's wife pretty clearly deferred to her husband in most of the home's common areas. There is a parlor which is sort of girly and brighter, but for the most part she seems to be in the background. It actually fits the pattern of their life, as she wasn't one for the spotlight. Living in a moose lodge is the price you pay for marrying greatness, I guess.
In the historic sense, Sagamore Hill was maybe the first true summer White House. Thanks to phone lines and rail lines, TR was actually able to move the operations of the executive branch to a fishing village in Long Island a few months out of the year. It's also the place where TR kicked the bucket, in an upstairs bedroom after a steady decline.
And he's buried just one mile away! Youngs Memorial Cemetery is just down the hill. In 2009, we were greeted there by yet another intriguing character, a retired teacher who was now the "groundskeeper." He apparently knew a few of TR's kids and tried to present us with a photocopied packet documenting his personal advocating on behalf of ... uh ... something. I think there was an anti-child abuse bill in there somewhere. In my mind, he regularly has fistfights in the town square with our 2009 tour guide over the girl they both asked to prom. She went with neither of them.
The grave is very simple -- 26 steps take you up to regular-sized grave marker of the 26th president. Considering that TR was the most popular man in America, it's pretty reserved. Edith apparently picked out the spot, and maybe in death she finally got her say on the decorating.
New York State Capitol, Albany
Visited in 2017.
Sometimes tacky just works, y'know?
I'm pretty sure this is the Senate chamber. I mean, it looks senatorial.
The Great Western staircase. Lincoln wasn't a New Yorker, but oh well.
A man stunningly important to presidential history. Also, a huge jerk.
The governor's reception room, a pretty good improvisation on the original design.
If we're being honest, Theodore Roosevelt didn't have a super-special connection with the capitol building. He did work there as a state legislator, and when he was serving as governor in 1899, he declared the building complete after 30 years of construction.
That was a painfully optimistic declaration. Within 10 years, portions of the Assembly chamber's vaulted ceiling were collapsing on people. Another area was meant to be a grand room with a high vaulted ceiling, but they never took out the temporary "second floor" used during construction, probably because everyone now had a healthy fear of high vaulted ceilings. The space was vertically chopped in half, so they just decided the upper part was now the governor's reception area. The building is clearly a disjointed mash of styles -- the end result when you change architects multiple times over three decades.
But I suppose that makes it a Rooseveltian building. It contains many elements that seemingly do not go together. Parts of it are obnoxiously gaudy, and all of it is clearly meant to project authority. And it all somehow works! He must have loved the place.
I highly recommend visiting if you have the chance. It's a fun departure from the usual "rotunda with two wings" capitols; instead, it's a giant Romanesque heap. It was one of the last buildings of its size to feature load-bearing masonry walls -- meaning, it's a brick shithouse on an enormous scale. There are three grand staircases, and each one has its own over-the-top style. The Assembly staircase is Moorish, the Senate staircase is ornamented sandstone, and the Great Western staircase has the faces of dozens of New York icons carved into the walls.
Supposedly, Governor Roosevelt got his exercise by running up and down the Capitol's 77 front steps. Not long after, he transitioned to to running the country. But I still say it's worth seeing his old haunt.