by Chris Clemens
While opening a Presidential Library today is customary for a former U.S. President, in 1941 it was unheard of. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pondered the future of his vast collection of documents, it occurred to him that they should belong to the people. During his terms in office, he created the first ever Presidential Library next to his home in Hyde Park. Today, the FDR Presidential Library and Museum is one of the finest historic sites in New York State.
As you may have read a couple weeks ago, I recently found myself in Poughkeepsie for a few days. In keeping with my one-museum-a-month for 2018, I swung over to the Home Of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site for a tour, and to checkout the iconic Presidential Library and Museum.
Papers for the People
Franklin D. Roosevelt had a pretty incredible career as a politician. Beginning in 1911, he first began by serving in the Senate here in New York State, where he was born and raised. Then, he served as Assistant Secretary to the U.S. Navy for seven years. In 1929, he would become New York’s 44th Governor, and in 1933 he became the nation’s 32nd President.
During his tenure in those various roles, he amassed a collection of books and memorabilia. Documents collected by the first 31 presidents were private property. Upon leaving office, they were free to keep any documents like letters, books, or historic papers. FDR was the first to realize the benefit of turning over his collection to the public good, allowing historians and public researchers to access the information.
An estimate completed in 1950 found that the collection held over 50 million items. At the time it included hundreds of sound recordings, over 16,000 books, 15,000 photographs, and more. Once built, the FDR Presidential Library itself was massive, and filled to the brim with artifacts.
A Left-Wing Library
FDR first sketched an architectural drawing for the building in 1937. He chose a design inspired by local Dutch colonial architecture, and featured local fieldstone. He commissioned John McShain, a well-known contractor from Philadelphia, who would soon become known as ‘the man who built Washington”.
Built just a few hundred steps from his home, the Springwood, the expansive library space includes a museum telling the story of FDR’s time in office. The building was constructed for $376,000 dollars–all money that had been raised privately. Then, on July 4, 1940, he turned the keys over the U.S. Government and the National Archives department.
Later in the 1970’s, two additional wings were added to allow the storage of Eleanor Roosevelt’s papers and more museum space. Much more recently, the museum received $17.5 million for renovations. After major upgrades with that funding, the newest edition of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum opened in 2013–and, it’s amazing!
Inside the Museum
I joined a guided tour of the grounds and home lead by a docent. The Library and Museum isn’t part of the tour, as visitors are allowed to enter without a guide. I did the tour first, and I’m glad I did it that way. The docent shared a bit of FDR’s history that I wasn’t quite as familiar with. Hearing that ahead of time gave me some background to the artifacts in the museum as I encountered them later.
The museum has exhibits primarily from FDR’s time as President, but there are occasional mentions to his previous offices. Real history buffs will appreciate spending a couple hours in this building, as there is a ton to see. Even casual museum goers should find that each room has something to connect with.
Interactive exhibits, placards, and artifacts all tell the long history of FDR’s impact on the world, and even outline some of his programs like The New Deal.
You’ll find staged areas modeled to look like the room where FDR recorded his fireside chats. His personal car that was modified so he could drive despite not having the use of his legs is on display in the lower floor. I even found myself fascinated by the fact that they had his lucky rabbit’s foot.
There is also a section of the museum with a rotating exhibit. During my visit, and continuing through the end of 2018 is a super cool collection of posters from World War II. While the rest of the museum provides an in-depth look at some of our culture during FDR’s time, the posters tell a really interesting story of their own.
When I’m in a new place, I typically try to see as much as possible. Recognizing that I probably won’t be back soon, I try to be as exhaustive in my exploration as time allows. So, when I passed a glass door in the museum leading into library stacks, I got real excited to see the door was open assuming it was publicly accessible.
It turns out, that door was not supposed to be open.
So, I’ll wrap up this post with a reminder that if you have a gut feeling that maybe you shouldn’t be going through that door, go with that gut feeling. It was a pretty painless lesson, but technically my name is now in a federal database somewhere!
The FDR Presidential Library and Museum is charged with the essential task of archiving some of our most sacred history, which can’t be easy. I was excited to see they’ve done an outstanding job of preserving and displaying it. If you find yourself downstate in the Hudson Valley, a visit to the Home Of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site should be high on your list.
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens