|photo by Alice Lum
In 1848 the six matching brownstone houses at Nos. 18 through 28 East 20th Street, built on speculation, were choice properties. Sitting about half-way between Fifth Avenue and fashionable Gramercy Park their staid Gothic Revival exteriors hinted at the social and financial status of those living inside; although almost six decades later, in 1905, The New York Times would remember the the block as “in a location respectable, though not ‘swell.’”
By now the Roosevelt family had been in New York for two centuries and had accumulated substantial wealth and social importance. Theodore and Robert Roosevelt purchased the new houses at Nos. 28 and 26, respectively. Theodore, a lawyer, married Martha “Mittie” Bulloch five years later. His brother Robert was a publisher.
Theodore and Mittie started their family here when Anna Roosevelt was born. Soon after came the first boy, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., born on October 27, 1858. There would be another son and daughter.
Little Theodore was asthmatic and sickly. Confined mostly to the East 20th Street house, he developed an acute interest in zoology. That interest was reportedly sparked when he saw a dead seal at the age of 7 at a market and brought the head home. With two of his cousins he started what they called the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.”
He taught himself the basics of taxidermy and his little museum exhibited stuffed animals he had killed and prepared. By the age of nine he had documented his study of insects in a paper “The Natural History of Insects.” Much to his delight, the backyard of the Peter Goelet mansion on Broadway, behind the Roosevelt house, held a menagerie of cows, pheasants, storks, and other exotic animals.
Despite Theodore’s sometimes life threatening illnesses, Theodore, Sr. did not coddle him. He installed an outdoor gymnasium for his frail, near-sighted son, and told him “Theodore you have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. I am giving you the tools, but it is up to you to make your body.”
Home schooled by tutors, young Theodore Roosevelt’s mind and body developed at 28 East 20th Street. He did breathing and strength exercises in the back yard and began boxing. It was here that his championing of “the strenuous life” started.
His father’s influence went beyond the physical. Theodore Jr. would say of him later “My father, Theodore Roosevelt, was the best man I ever knew. He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness. He would not tolerate in us children selfishness or cruelty, idleness, cowardice, or untruthfulness.”
In 1873, when Teddy was 14 years old, the family left 28 East 20th Street. The home was immediately converted to a rooming house and in 1874 an advertisement in The New York Times offered “two handsomely furnished front rooms on second floor.”
Various advertisements would appear throughout the next two decades. With most well-to-do families away for the summer on July 19, 1880 an ad in the New-York Tribune offered “rooms to let, with or without board, at very low summer prices. References.”
The advertisement in the same newspaper on August 19, 1886 was apparently successful, for it ran verbatim for years: “At 28 East 20th-ST., near Broadway—Handsomely furnished rooms for gentlemen; first-class attendance.”
By 1894 Dr. Elmer P. Arnold had established his practice here; most probably in the basement level. He hired as his nurse Mrs. Ellen A Clayton, who lived conveniently nearby at 37 East 20th Street. Ellen made a shopping trip to one of the Sixth Avenue emporiums on January 11, 1895. A few inexpensive items caught her eye so she took them. Literally.
Unfortunately for Ellen, a store detective noticed her stuff a pair of 60-cent gloves in her pocket. She was arrested with goods totaling less than $3.00 on her. Amazingly, she had $116.16 in cash in her purse—nearly $3,000 in today’s money.
When the Sergeant at the West 13th Street Station asked her why she stole the items, “She told the Sergeant she thought she must be crazy,” reported The New York Times.
In 1898 the Roosevelt family, who still held the property, stripped off part of the brownstone façade and erected an ungainly glass and metal storefront. Just before New Year’s Day in 1898 The Wendell Dining Rooms opened, a restaurant that boasted a French chef “and superior appointments.”
|An 8-foot store front was added in 1898 -- photo Library of Congress
The Wendell Dining Rooms would last only a year or two. The Roosevelts sold the house, oddly enough still described as a “four story dwelling,” to William R. Kendall in 1899. Coexisting with the variety of businesses in the building were a few tenants. In 1900 artist Paul Nimmo Moran was living here.
|The restaurant offered convenient lunching for female shoppers -- The Sun, December 30, 1898 (copyright expired)
The Mutual Publishing Company was in the building by 1901. In advertising for material, it said “We want manuscripts for books, fiction, poetry, history, philosophical or religious works; large royalties to new writers. If you are looking for an energetic publisher, who will bring you before the public, call or write.”
That same year Theodore Roosevelt was elected the 26th President of the United States. Early in October, 1904 a group of Republicans from the 17th Election District “formulated the plan of holding meetings in a ‘hallowed spot,’” as reported in The New York Times on October 21. The new organization called itself the Roosevelt Club and leased the only room available in the Roosevelt birthplace.
The New York Times said “it was found that the only space available was the rear room on the top floor, four flights up from the street.” Nevertheless the group took the space and “got to work to decorate the little room, which is about 6 feet by 9, with flags and lithographs of the Republic candidates.”
Until the night of their first meeting, there was considerable debate among New Yorkers as to whether the highly-altered building at 20 West 28th Street was even the President’s actual birthplace. All questions were put to rest when a telegram from the White House arrived at the clubroom which read:
Permit me to extend my hearty congratulations on the occasion of the meeting of the club in the house where I was born.
By 1919 the once-proud residence had been even more severely altered. In March The New York Times noted “Before the house was sold several years ago for commercial uses it was a four-story brownstone, but alterations to make it useful for a restaurant and shops made it of only two stories.”
The house and the adjoining John E. and Robert Roosevelt house were purchased for a group of concerned women, calling themselves the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Committee. The New York Times said “When the Women’s Memorial Committee was organized, one of the first proposals made to it was that the birthplace of the twenty-sixth President should be bought and preserved for posterity as many other houses of famous men born in this city have been preserved.”
The purchasers were represented by the Douglas Robinson, Charles E. Brown Company. The Robinson family was related to Theodore Roosevelt by marriage.
Popular lore today often insists that the house had been leveled and the Memorial Committee was charged with reproducing the house from scratch. Although the house was heavily altered, tales of its complete demolition, like Mark Twain’s premature obituary, are greatly exaggerated.
The New York Times noted that because of the state of the building “the interior will have to be restored entirely” and “In restoring the house, the descriptions to be furnished by members of the family will be followed closely, as well as the description written by Colonel Roosevelt in his autobiography.”
In announcing its plans, the Committee said “With its assembly halls to be visited by people from all over the country who loved him and who would study the influences that made up his growth, it is to be made a centre of citizenship activities, a place where all citizens can come together in order that their understanding of America may become deeper and keener. Colonel Roosevelt’s vigor of life, robustness of belief and energy of will are the real background of this memorial.”
The group established a goal of $1 million and fund raising started immediately. In October Major General Leonard Wood delivered an address at Carnegie Hall; pledges from the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America flowed in; and William Webster Ellsworth gave an illustrated lecture on “Theodore Roosevelt—American.” The New-York Tribune, on April 27, 1920, ran an advertisement saying “Men and Women of America are asked to help restore the birthplace of Theodore Roosevelt.”
The Memorial Committee commissioned female architect Theodate Pope Riddle to oversee the restoration. Riddle used the Robert Roosevelt house, an exact copy, as a pattern for the new house museum. The Gothic Revival drip moldings, the marvelous row of arches beneath the cornice, the floor-to-ceiling parlor windows opening onto the cast iron balcony and the fish-scale tiled mansard roof were all reproduced.
|photo by Alice Lum
Then, having used the house at 26 East 20th Street for its details, she promptly obliterated them. More than half a century later the Landmarks Preservation Commission would diplomatically say she “subordinated the features of the Robert Roosevelt house in order to enhance the importance of Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace.” In fact, seeing no historical importance in that building, Riddle replaced it with a flat, featureless wall with windows. As would be expected in the at the time, The New York Times saw nothing wrong in the unsympathetic conversion.
|In 1923, the Theodore Roosevelt House emerged like new; while the Robert Roosevelt house was decimated -- photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
“The house next door, where Roosevelt played much as a boy, as it belonged to his uncle, Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, a prominent Democratic politician in his day and American Minister to Holland under President Cleveland, has been designed for a museum and library.”
Roosevelt’s widow, Edith, and his two sisters donated original furnishings. Rooms were outfitted to reflect the house as it appeared in 1865. By October 1922 the Committee had received contributions totaling $1.9 million and collected thousands of items related to Roosevelt. The house contained five period rooms, two museum galleries and a bookstore.
|An early postcard showed the "library" and dining room-- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The renovations were finally completed and dedicated on October 27, 1923. Twentieth Street was roped off and “hung with American flags” and amplifiers carried the addresses to the crowd of 600 outside.
The New York Times described the period rooms that “will be thrown open to the public, replete with exhibits touching on his life from birth to death.” It said “The parlor of the home itself contains the original furniture, and the dining room table is that used by the family of the Colonel. This room and the library are furnished for the most part with reproductions of the original furniture. The front bedroom, where Colonel Roosevelt was born, is furnished with the original bedroom set, family portraits decorating the walls. The nursery at the rear has some originals. The library has many first editions, many of them autographed, of Colonel Roosevelt’s books. The roof is given over to a garden where lunches and dinners will be served.”
|The parlor furniture, seen here in a 1955 postcard, was original to the Roosevelt family
For years the Woman’s Roosevelt Memorial Association presented a bronze medallion at an annual reception in the house. On January 4, 1933 it was Amelia Earhart who was awarded the medal which bore a portrait of Roosevelt.
|A mid-century postcard shows the bedroom where the president was born.
In 1963 the house was donated to the National Park Service and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. Few passersby would suspect that the prim brownstone-fronted house suffered serious abuse a century ago and that little is original. The Roosevelt House is a remarkably early example of historic preservation, especially considering the monumental task the women who envisioned it had before them.
|photo by Alice Lum