For years I’ve been walking past a tastefully recessed brownstone on East 20th Street, discovering just recently that it is the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. TR was the only American president born in New York and “the birthplace” is one of the city’s most overlooked museums.
The house was one of two identical brownstones built by paterfamilias, Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt. CVS, as he was known to family and friends, gave them as wedding gifts to sons, Robert and Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., AKA “Thee” and father of the future president.
Thee’s original, at 28 East, was demolished in 1916, a casualty of commercial development. But after TR’s death in 1919, his wife, the former First Lady Edith Roosevelt, and other female relations raised funds to have it rebuilt and restored, using its twin as a model. The latter now houses a museum, which displays, among other memorabilia, the shirt that Roosevelt wore during an assassination attempt on the campaign trail. Bullet hole visible. Also, the uniform he wore during the Cuban campaign. It was tailored to his specifications by Brooks Brothers.
Theodore and his three siblings were all born in same front bedroom on the second floor, shown below.
Nestled behind it is a nursery where the current baby-in-residence was deposited; then sent packing upstairs when the next infant arrived. The back end of this room was reconfigured to provide for an outdoor space for the children to play. This “piazza” had no doors leading onto it so the Roosevelt brood had to reach it by climbing through the windows.
The “great rooms” – the family room/library, dining room and formal parlor — are high-ceilinged but, by Millennial standards, a tad too narrow for comfort. Where did anyone living here find privacy? They didn’t. Not enough of it, at least, to accommodate the volatile personalities within. Possibly why TR found the inexhaustible expanses of the West so inviting.
The Birthplace was modeled after the rowhouses of Amsterdam where the steep stoop was meant to surmount flooding canals. These could come back into style as ocean levels rise.
The walk-through, curated by a very knowledgeable ranger of the National Park Service, takes about an hour and is free. It’s also a solid backgrounder to documentarian Ken Burns’s upcoming PBS series, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History that will air in two-hour segments over seven successive nights this coming September. It runs a total of fourteen hours and follows the Roosevelt clan from its arrival in New Amsterdam in the Sixteen Hundreds through Franklin and Eleanor.
Alfred A. Knopf has published a companion book co-authored by Burns and Roosevelt historian, Geoffrey C. Ward. The latter is one of this blog’s favorite author/editors. Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley is cited in two posts below: “Driving With Daisy”, January 17, 2013, and “Bo! Bo! Bo!”, December 7, 2012.
NOTE: Approximately 60% of the furnishings are deemed to be original. The remainder are contemporaneous period pieces.