The concept of the presidential library was the brainchild of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of our most well known presidents. He established The FDR Presidential Library in 1941, setting a precedent for United States Presidents to donate their papers to their presidential libraries, for preservation and research.
Before the FDR Library, presidential papers remained the property of the President leaving the White House. Sometimes those papers were preserved in historical societies and museums, but others were lost. FDR recognized the importance of preserving those important historical papers, so he decided to open his own presidential library.
His became the very first presidential library owned and operated by the federal government. Every president after him, plus Herbert Hoover, have presidential libraries run by the National Archives. In 1978 it became a federal law for Presidents to donate their papers to the public trust.
Roosevelt chose the site of his boyhood home in Hyde Park, NY as the place to build his presidential library. He designed the building himself, and even requested that he be buried there in his mother’s rose garden.
Originally, FDR envisioned his museum as a place to both tell his life story and display his vast collections, ranging from model ships to coins. He even had an office on the site that he used during his administration, which has been preserved in the museum building, just as he left it.
Today the museum has permanent galleries focusing on FDR’s privileged childhood, his presidency, and his wife Eleanor’s legacy. I was in town to review the museum’s new temporary exhibition “Freedom From Fear: FDR Commander in Chief” for The Public Historian, the journal of the National Council on Public History. A full review of that exhibit will appear in the next issue, which will focus exclusively on presidential libraries.
The permanent exhibits are rather dated, but the staff is planning a major renovation and overhaul of the gallery spaces. The museum recently built a state-of-the-art education center, which freed up a great deal of space in the original building, allowing them to greatly expand and modernize the exhibits.
Two of the museum’s most prized possessions are the desk FDR actually used in the Oval Office at the White House, and his 1936 Ford Phaeton, which was retooled with hand controls so the President could drive it himself (his legs had been paralyzed from polio years earlier).
The complex is jointly run by the National Archives, who controls the Library & Museum, and the National Park Service, who runs FDR’s home. On a tour of the home, our docent shared a personal story of growing up in London during “the blitz” in World War II, when Nazi Germany repeatedly bombed Great Britain. She remembers her father tuning in the radio and telling her to “listen to the American President.” She is now a naturalized American citizen, and giving tours of FDR’s home is her way of “giving back” to a man who helped save her native land from destruction.
The home is beautiful, and became even more spectacular when the docent shared with us some of its famous houseguests. We saw the rooms where Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth stayed when visiting Hyde Park. We also saw the room in which FDR was born.
The museum’s education program conjures up FDR’s best friend Falla, a black Scottish terrier who was frequently seen with the President. An educator dresses up as the famous “Scottie” to do a program for 2nd graders at the site. The dog meant so much to FDR that when he died, Eleanor Roosevelt had him buried near her husband in the rose garden. She would later join them.
When planning a visit to the FDR Presidential Library & Museum, you simply MUST visit another local attraction – the Culinary Institute of America! It is literally just down the street from the museum and offers five different restaurants to choose from. Four of them require reservations, but the Apple Pie Bakery Café is for walk-ins. It is completely run by the sophomore class.
The food was beyond compare! I had a warm brie and pear sandwich, and my husband had a chicken Caesar wrap. The dessert case is strategically placed right where you place your order, and who could resist that? I ordered a chocolate peanut butter torte, and my husband had the carrot cake. Giant windows into the kitchen allows you to watch the students at work. It was very reasonably priced and well worth your time!