Futral, right, curator of the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt
National Historic Sites, speaks with visitors about
early American-style furniture at the opening of
Eleanor Roosevelt's Stone Cottage at the Eleanor
Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, N.Y.,
on June 1, 2014.
for Eleanor Roosevelt, was Val-Kill in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Springwood, the family estate overlooking the Hudson,
where her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was born.
Val-Kill, on Roosevelt property, is her own place. Away
from Franklin, and the other Mrs. Roosevelt — his
mother, Sara. But also away from … everything. Up a
windy road off Route 9, mountainward instead of toward the
river and its millionaire-worthy views.
been to the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, the
180-or-so acres Eleanor called Val-Kill, about 20 years
ago. I’d toured her home there, Val-Kill Cottage, a
place that, when you stepped in, closed itself around you
like a hug. A place with fitted slipcovers. A stone
fireplace. A big furniture-radio. Christmas cards, framed,
on the dining room walls. Wood paneling, hung with faded
black and white photos. Eleanor with one of her sons. Her
friends. Eleanor with Nikita Khrushchev. John F. Kennedy.
knew Eleanor had a busy life. I thought that was all I
needed to know.
hadn’t thought of going back, then, until I heard that
another small building on Eleanor’s bit of turf, Stone
Cottage, was opening to the public.
Cottage was actually the original building on the
property. A place two of her best friends used as a
residence. The building has been restored today not as a
house museum, however. Instead, it is dedicated to Eleanor’s
early political life, and the rise of women in politics:
"Eleanor Roosevelt and Val-Kill: Emergence of a
went to the preview before the June 1 opening. And I
realized that it really is good to go back, sometimes.
Been there, done that can really be a deleterious concept
when it comes to travel and, well, a lot of things come to
think of it.
didn’t know all she did on her hill. And much of what
she did, and thought, bears repeating, and remembering.
wasn’t a retreat," said Frank Futral, curator of
the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites and
designer of the permanent exhibition at Stone Cottage,
which took three years to put together. "This was a
place where she thought, and did."
was a think-and-do tank, actually. And the ranger said he
had not even known just how much Eleanor did there.
was no hermit. She loved having people over, playing
hostess and grandma and mother hen and — to her own
surprise — diplomat.
though born into a life of privilege, was an orphan by the
time she was 10 — her mother died when she was 8, and
her father died less than two years later, of alcoholism.
She was raised by grandparents in the Hudson Valley town
of Tivoli, until she was shipped off to boarding school in
married FDR — a fifth cousin — and set about the
duties of a wifely life, which she had already decided
meant supporting her husband’s endeavors. Little did she
know how much of a role she would be called on to play
when Franklin was struck with a near-fatal case of polio
only did she have to help him adjust to a whole new way of
life, but was urged, by Franklin’s advisers, to keep his
political ambitions alive by taking up causes and public
loath to do so at first (she writes in her memoirs that
she was painfully shy), she soon realized she was pretty
good as a speaker and a motivator, and there was a lot she
wanted to speak passionately about. By the time her
husband was elected president (the first of four times) in
1932, she was redefining the role of the first lady
we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
get back to Hyde Park. Val-Kill. The Stone Cottage.
Roosevelts’ Springwood home was always a summer retreat
for the family — Sara Roosevelt held forth there.
Eleanor and Franklin were married there and spent time
there and brought their family and friends around.
day in 1924, Eleanor and two close friends, Nancy Cook and
Marion Dickerman, were at a picnic with FDR and two of
their sons at nearby Fall Creek — a quiet spot on the
Roosevelt’s property about two miles east of Springwood.
At the time, Eleanor lamented about having to leave Hyde
Park when Springwood closed up for the season. Franklin
suggested they build a "shack in the woods" for
themselves right there.
women thought it was a great idea and planning began
immediately for a place of their own on Fall Creek —
Val-Kill, in Dutch.
cottage was built by the end of 1925.
before it was finished, though, the women had another idea
for the property. FDR had been voicing concerns about the
migration of people from rural areas to the cities to find
few areas, "cottage industries" had been helpful
in stemming the flow of youth away from farms. The women
decided to create Val-Kill Industries, setting up a small
shop to turn out furniture and crafts in the early
American style. All agreed.
business partners built not only the stone cottage but a
factory on the grounds.
idea was an almost immediate success. The cottage industry
at Val-Kill hired its first permanent craftsman in 1926.
By 1934, the enterprise expanded to a pewter forge and
weaving shop. Two years later, however, the shops were
closed because of the Great Depression.
the time, Eleanor had a new mission: She became the
president’s legs, literally, traveling across the
country to gather firsthand knowledge of the state of a
United States in the throes of economic disaster. She
returned to report on intolerable conditions and urged
swift actions — her contribution to the Roosevelt
administration, and that era, was in retrospect deemed
FDR’s death less than three months after his fourth
inauguration in April 1945 and the gift of Springwood to
the government for use as a historic site, Eleanor moved
to Val-Kill for her permanent home. Franklin was buried in
Hyde Park, and it was where heads of state came to pay
their respects. A reporter covering one of those visits
asked Mrs. Roosevelt what was next, to which she
responded, "The story is over."
Eleanor Roosevelt went on to her greatest accomplishments
— including her roles as the first woman representative
of the United Nations and the force behind the Human
Rights Declaration — when her own story, without FDR,
had once described Val-Kill as the place "where I
used to find myself and grow" and where "I
emerged as an individual." She gained strength and
inspiration from the pastoral surroundings. Her story
there continued for two decades.
then, that the place was almost sold to a developer for
condos. Eleanor died on Nov. 7, 1962, and her son John
took over and soon converted her home into four apartments
that he rented out. In 1970, he actually sold Val-Kill to
developers who planned to create a retirement
community/nursing home on the site.
1976, a local group, with some state and local figures as
well as Roosevelt family members, was formed to save
Val-Kill from development. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter
signed a proclamation creating the Eleanor Roosevelt
National Historic Site, and it remains the only National
Historic Site dedicated to a first lady. The organization
that saved the property, the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at
Val-Kill, offers programs including a leadership project
for young women from diverse backgrounds.
Stone Cottage is still being used to promote Eleanor’s
vision. It’s a small, small space to put a lifetime’s
worth of memories, accomplishments and inspiration. It can
get even smaller-feeling on particularly crowded days. The
exhibition includes a variety of methods for conveying
information in compact, space-saving ways — videos among
video is the first thing you may see when going through
the small door into the building. A video that very likely
will cause a knot in the visitor flow because it’s so
a loop of what are in effect home movies taken by her
friend Nancy Cook of Eleanor and folks who came to visit
— everyone from King George VI and his wife, Elizabeth,
to ready-for-her-close-up, crinoline-flapping Shirley
Temple to Queen Wihelmina of the Netherlands and even Mr.
President himself. It’s utterly charming, this video,
giving visitors a taste of the hospitality the Roosevelts
— Eleanor in particular — were known for.
the main exhibition room is another technique for layering
information: Below some displays on the walls and cases,
you’ll find drawers with artifacts that further
illustrate a point. For instance, on the topic of Eleanor’s
efforts to empower other women, you can open a drawer to
find a copy of the Women’s Democratic News she helped
found and publish.
to look for these hidden-away pieces; if I hadn’t seen a
drawer already opened, I might not have noticed them.
also see a timeline on the wall, following Eleanor’s
progress and important moments in the context of world
events. Here, too, read carefully. Among the significant
events highlighted from 1917 to 1919, for instance, are
"U.S enters World War I," and "Eleanor
volunteers during World War I with Red Cross canteens,
Navy League knitting projects and naval hospitals,"
and "New York gives women the right to vote" as
well as "Eleanor discovers love letters between FDR
and Lucy Mercer."
nice sleight of space-saving: Officials are still in the
process of finding original furnishings that were sold in
the 1970s, but in the middle of the room is a scrim that
drops down to dovetail seamlessly with an original couch
from the main room, the scrim depicting the furnishing
from an old photograph.
was a lot to read about, and I’ll admit I was most often
charmed by some of the backstage photos — like FDR
wearing a toga in response to critics who likened him to a
upstaging even the video of Franklin doing a sort of
thumb-wrestle for the camera was just what a force Eleanor
was in shaping modern history.
1946, President Harry S. Truman, who’d given Eleanor the
nickname First Lady of the World, recruited her to be one
of the members of the first American delegation to the
United Nations — and the first woman delegate at the
in London, where the first meeting was held, and then back
in Val-Kill, Eleanor played the key role in the drafting
and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Her commitment to justice often placed her at risk and
made her an easy target — sometimes literally — for
critics. (In the "Close to Home" introductory
video you learn that the Ku Klux Klan had put a price on
her head. Despite that, and her advisers’ fears, she
took a trip into the Deep South, without incident).
1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed her chairwoman
of the first Presidential Commission on the Status of
died the next year.
Cottage brings a little bit of Eleanor back to life. In
this quiet enclave, where she and her friends made
history, her spirit, you can feel it, is home.
ROOSEVELT NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE, HYDE PARK, N.Y.
THERE: New York State Thruway (I-87) north to Exit 18 (New
Paltz); take 299 east, to 9W South, follow the signs to
Mid-Hudson Bridge (aka Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge).
After crossing the bridge follow signs to Route 9 North,
which you will take for about three miles north, passing
the Culinary Institute of America. At the first traffic
light after the institute, turn right onto St. Andrews
Road. At the end of St. Andrews, take a left onto 9G
North. The entrance to Val-Kill is approximately half a
mile on the right.
From the Val-Kill parking lot, you can take the
five-minute walk along the path over a cute little bridge
past a pond up to the visitors center. A free shuttle also
comes by frequently if you feel like saving your energy.
Your first stop is the visitors center at Val-Kill for
tickets and information.
is $10; children 15 and under free. Special national park
passes are honored. The price of admission includes a
45-minute guided tour of Val-Kill cottage, a 12-minute
orientation film on Eleanor Roosevelt, "Close to
Home," and exhibitions; spend as much time as you
want at the Stone Cottage.
Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site is open
year-round. Hours for May through October are 9 a.m. to 5
p.m. daily; guided tours offered throughout the day with
the last tour at 4. From November through April, guided
tours only offered at 1 and 3 p.m. Thursday through
Monday. The site is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
are free and open every day from sunrise to sunset.
INFO: nps.gov/elro or 845-229-9422.