Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The 1908 Roosevelt Houses -- Nos. 47-49 East 65th Street

The Sara Delano Roosevelt-Franklin Delano Roosevelt House -- photo Cromwell International
Sara Ann Delano, who could trace her ancestors to the Mayflower, married the wealthy widower James Roosevelt in 1880. They had one son, Franklin.   When James Roosevelt died in 1900 the domineering Sara doted even more on her already-spoiled son.

Sara poses with Franklin in a highlands outfit in 1887 -- photo Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
Two years later the Harvard student, Franklin, met his distant cousin, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1903, after a reception and dinner at the White House (President Theodore Roosevelt was Eleanor’s uncle), the two began seeing one another. A year later, in November, Franklin proposed.

Sara Delano Roosevelt was not pleased.

On her insistence, the engagement was not announced for a month while she argued against the marriage. Then, in 1904, Sara swept her son away on a cruise in the hopes that separation would bring him to his senses. It didn’t.

“I know what pain I must have caused you,” Franklin wrote to his mother, referring to the engagement, “I know my own mind, and known it for a long time, and know that I could never think otherwise.”

Much to Sara’s disappointment, the couple was married on St. Patrick’s Day 1905 with President Roosevelt giving way the bride.

The newlyweds took an apartment and then left for a three-month honeymoon. They returned to find that Sara Roosevelt had started plans for a double townhouse for the three of them – Franklin and his new wife on one side, she on the other.

Designed by architect Charles A. Platt the house was completed in 1908. Situated on East 65th Street near 5th Avenue, it was a stately red brick Neo-Georgian structure with a limestone first-story. The arched doorway with double wrought-iron doors framed a handsome fanlight. The foyer beyond contained the doors leading to the separate residences.

The house during the FDR Presidency - photo NYPL Collection
 At the second floor, with its four tall-multi-paned windows, a wrought-iron balcony extended the width of the structure. A striking carved cartouche between the third and fourth stories added visual interest.

Sara, known by society as Mrs. James Roosevelt, took up residence in No. 47, while Franklin and Eleanor moved in next door at No. 49. Totally dominating the couple’s lives, she chose their furniture and d├ęcor and hired their household staff.

Sara with her young daughter-in-law in 1908 -- photo Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
The couple stayed in the house when they were in New York, which as the years passed, became less and less.

In 1918 the Spanish Flu pandemic swept the globe. More than a quarter of the world’s population was infected and between 50 and 100 million died. On September 17 of that year, Franklin Roosevelt, now Assistant Secretary of the Navy, arrived in New York after two months abroad. Roosevelt had contracted the dreaded disease aboard ship which now had worsened with a slight case of pneumonia. Rather than being taken to his own home where Eleanor was waiting, he was taken to his mother’s side of the residence.

Only three years later, in August of 1921, Franklin was abruptly stricken with polio. After two months of hospitalization, he insisted on going to East 65th Street, rather than the more private Hyde Park estate upstate. Here, in the fourth floor bedroom, he spent months in a resolute struggle to recover and resume his political and social life.

Gradually Franklin and Eleanor spent less time at No. 49 until, by 1928, the family was there only sporadically. After her husband’s election to the White House, Eleanor preferred to spend her time in New York at an apartment at 20 East 11th Street in Greenwich Village. Finally, in October, 1934, The New York Times reported that “President Roosevelt's town house at 47-49 East Sixty-fifth Street is for rent. A rectangular sign saying so, freshly coated with cream-colored paint and lettered in bright ultramarine, was hung to the right of the arched doorway yesterday morning.”

Mrs. James Roosevelt, however, remained firmly entrenched. Sara gave regular teas in support of her many charities and the door to her side of the residence welcomed a steady stream of New York socialites until 1941.

Perhaps the first hint that things were not well was when, on September 5th of that year, Eleanor gave up her 11th Street apartment and moved back into the home on 65th Street (which The New York Times noted “has stood unoccupied for most of the period since her husband went to the White House in 1933). Eleanor told the press her move was in part economical but that she “will be next door to the President’s mother, who has not been in good health.”

Two days later Sara Delano Roosevelt was dead.

A week later Eleanor Roosevelt instructed the real estate firm of Pease Ellian, Inc. to put the house on the market. In October, the President and Eleanor went through the house for the last time to select “furniture and bric-a-brac that he wants to transfer to his home at Hyde Park on the Hudson,” reported The Times.

The house was acquired in 1942 by a group who presented it to Hunter College as a social and interfaith center. Franklin Roosevelt expressed his happiness the home’s new use, which was to foster “mutual understanding among Protestant, Jewish and Catholic students.” The joined houses, he said, brought “memories of joy and sorrow.”

Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at the dedication ceremonies.

photo by Alice Lum
The President personally furnished the library and presented a large number of books. The two dining rooms were combined as were the two parlors; but otherwise the interiors were kept essentially intact.

Today the dignified double home that Sara Delano Roosevelt built looks just as it did in 1908. It is a fine example of early 20th Century townhouse architecture and an important piece of American history.


  1. I used to have a student job in the Roosevelt house when I was in college. It was a mess inside then but now it has been redone. Even a mess, it was still lovely. Thanks for this wonderful post.

  2. Are there floor plans available anywhere of the way the original house was laid out. I would love to see that as I have read so much about it in various books about FDR.

  3. Did the singer Joni James live there in 1953 and several years after? I have a CUE magazine feature on her and the building looks the same. Joni occupied the first two floors, with her secretary on the second. When she appeared on Edward R. Murrow's famous television show "Person to Person" it was at her home, and it looked just like it. I am told, however, that similar building sits on 67th street.

    1. According to a syndicated newspaper article by Harold Stern on September 11, 1960, she was living on East 67th Street.

  4. Fascinating, thanks for sharing!