Wednesday, May 27, 2015

If you want to visit the museum on the site of Teddy Roosevelt's birth and boyhood, you'll have to wait a year


Regardless of what the National Park Service says, Theodore Roosevelt's birthplace hasn't existed for nearly 200 years. For the next year, the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site -- on the site of TR's birthplace -- will be closed for renovation.

GRAMERCY -- Theodore Roosevelt's birthplace is getting a major renovation to upgrade its fire and electric systems and make the museum more ADA accessible, officials said.
by Ken

Since all things Roosevelt are hot now, in the wake of the most recent Ken Burns docu-series, I thought fans would want to know about this not-quite-breaking news. But before we proceed, we have to correct something the writer of DNAinfo New York piece herself knows is incorrect, as she makes clear deeper into the piece.
The brownstone — which features five period rooms, two museum galleries and a bookstore — had been demolished in 1916. It was then rebuilt in 1919 by the Women's Roosevelt Memorial Association with the help of Roosevelt's widow and sister in a bid to look as similar to the original as possible.
So, notwithstanding the heading you'll find at the National Park Service Web page linked in that DNAinfo NY opening paragraph, as illustrated above, what has been closed is not TR's birthplace, which hasn't existed for almost a century -- and even then what stood on the site didn't bear much resemblance to the "birthplace" as young Teddy would have known it.

What's more, half of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site was ever the site of TR's birthplace, though the other half of the site does have a historical connection. The National Park Service knows all about this too, because within its "Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace" Web page, there's a page that gets the story pretty much right, as far as I can tell. (This is the page linked at "Women's Roosevelt Memorial Association" in the later paragraph above.)
On November 30, 1919, the Woman's Roosevelt Memorial Association paid off the $25,043.63 mortgage on 28 E. 20th Street, thereby acquiring ownership of Theodore Roosevelt's birthplace, as well as the adjoining 26 E. 20th St. property that was once owned by Theodore's uncle, Robert Roosevelt. This transaction completed the first step in a long process of restoring and renovating the late president's childhood home into a memorial. However, 28 an 26 E. 20th Street in 1919 was a much different place than it had been when Theodore was born there in 1858.

With the evolution of the Gramercy area into an increasingly commercial district in the mid-late 19th century, the Roosevelts decided to move uptown to 6 W. 57th Street in 1873. By 1898, the once neo-gothic brownstones of 20th Street had been transformed into storefronts. While celebrating TR's 47th birthday in 1905, the Roosevelt Home Club decided to buy 28 E. 20th Street, in hopes of preserving its initial structure from further renovations and maintaining the site as a National Landmark. However, in 1916, the group let go of the building, and it was then transformed into a two-story café. Roosevelt declined the opportunity to preserve the mantelpieces or any other part of the house before its demolition.

In 1919, shortly after TR's death, the Women's Roosevelt Memorial Association purchased the 20th street properties and established very specific plans for the buildings' restorations. 28 E. 20th Street was to be a meticulous reproduction of Roosevelt's home as it was in his childhood, complete with family portraits, original furniture, and other Roosevelt heirlooms. Any original pieces that could not be salvaged were to be reproduced exactly. The 26 E. 20th Street home would be renovated into a museum and a library, holding influential works in addition Theodore's own writings. The fourth and fifth floors of both buildings would hold auditoriums where New York school children could attend assemblies on the history of the country and the state, as well as the life and work of the Theodore Roosevelt. The Women's Roosevelt Memorial Association wanted to transform the buildings into more than just museums; they wanted to create an interactive experience to promote the principles that helped shape Theodore's strong character.

On January 6, 1921, the second anniversary of Theodore's death, General Leonard Wood, former commander of the Rough Riders, laid the cornerstone of the Roosevelt House, officially marking the renovation commencement. The memorial was formally opened to the public on October 27, 1923, which would have been Theodore's 65th birthday. Three hundred people attended the opening ceremony inside the newly restored house. Tributes were made from General Wood, President Calvin Coolidge, James Garfield, Secretary of the Interior in the Roosevelt Cabinet; Governor Pinchot of Pennsylvania, Chief Forester during the Roosevelt presidency; and Theodore Roosevelt, TR's eldest son.

As articulated by the Woman's Roosevelt Memorial Association, the Roosevelt house was to be a living testament to the president's great American spirit; "a place where his voice may, year after year, be clearly and strongly heard". The association hoped the late president's former home would promulgate Theodore's ideals of courage, fairness, service, and perseverance, especially to the country's youth. The memorial would be national center for Americanization and an inspiration of greatness for generations to come.
So the cumbersome verbiage of the name "Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site" actually makes the thing correct, in the same way that the cumbersome name "Federal Hall National Memorial," for the building at the intersection of Wall, Nassau, and Broad Streets in Lower Manhattan's Financial District, is a correct designation for the building that now stands on the site of the Federal Hall where George Washington took the oath of office as the first president of the United States in 1789 -- but "Federal Hall" is not correct.

Standing there on his pedestal in front of Federal Hall National Memorial, George Washington is probably wondering what happened to the "Federal Hall" on whose balcony he famously took the presidential oath of office.

And here there's no issue of "look-alike" reconstruction. It's hardly a secret that the building that was known as Federal Hall in 1789 (built in 1700 in smaller form as NYC's second City Hall was torn down, after going through several other uses (there was hardly any call for a Federal Hall in NYC once the capital was moved to Philadelphia and then Washington, DC),  including once again serving as City Hall, in 1812, when the new City Hall (still in service) opened. The building that replaced it, a decade in the building before its opening in 1842 as the first U.S. Customs House, was never meant to bear any resemblance to Federal Hall; its significance-by-location was recognized only much later, with its designation in 1939 as Federal Hall National Memorial National Historic Site. (Now there's a mouthful.)

No, the cars aren't original either.
The "TR's birthplace" situation more closely resembles that of a different famous Lower Manhattan site, also associated with George Washington, "Fraunces Tavern." Visitors flock to the corner of Pearl and Broad Streets, maybe a quarter-mile south of Federal Hall National Memorial, and often think they're looking at the historic tavern that was a favorite haunt of George when he was in New York, the Queen's Head (for the portrait of Queen Charlotte on the building front), run by his supporter Samuel Fraunces. The thing is, the building that housed the historic tavern, after an additional century-plus of extensive damage and alteration, was finally slated for demolition. What's there now, completed in 1907, is a purported "replica" of the original -- a neat trick considering what sketchy knowledge there was of what the original looked like. (Just to confuse matters further, the building-that-isn't-Fraunces Tavern was designated as a NYC landmark in 1965. Since 1977 so has been the lovely block of old buildings it anchors on Pearl Street.)

No doubt the replica of TR's birthplace is a good deal more plausible, since presumably better information is available, and/or more plausibly conjecturable, about the actual birthplace, including its state when the future NYC police commissioner, NYS governor, and U.S. president was born, in 1858.


National Park Service spokesman Liam Strain describes the rehabbing of the TR birthplace site as "very delicate work," reports DNAinfo NY's Sybile Penhirin.
Strain said crews began removing artifacts from the home and relocating them to a secure facility and plan to begin renovation work this summer.

"We need to do work that doesn’t destroy the fabric of the home, it’s not like a private home where you could just remove walls. We have to be as minimally invasive as possible." . . .

The federal agency, which had been wanting to do the renovation work for the past several years, recently received 3.7 million to conduct "necessary and important improvements" at the historical site, officials said.

The museum's entire electric system, which dates back to when it opened to the public in the 1920's, will be replaced, Strain said. The fire alarm and sprinklers will also be swapped out for modern ones, which will be less likely to damage the museum's collection in the case they go off, he added.

The changes will also make the house more accessible to mobility-impaired visitors by adding two chair-lifts, one on the stairwell at the entrance level and another one that will go from the third floor to the auditorium on the fourth floor.

There is currently an elevator in the building, but it only goes up to the third floor of the four-story building. In addition, the auditorium hasn't been used for at least three years because the space wasn't accessible to everyone, Liam said.

A contractor for the work hasn't been chosen yet. NPS will put out a request for bids in July, with work expected to commence in August, Strain said.

Roosevelt, the only United States President born in the city, was born in the brownstone in 1858 and lived there until he was 14 years old.

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