He’s the only president born in New York City, yet millions of New Yorkers have probably never visited Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace on E. 2oth Street, just off Broadway. The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace sits in the heart of the city, but it’s actually part of the National Park System. A tour of the large brownstone offers insights into the life of our 26th president as well as the history of New York City.
To see the house, you have to take the tour (check the website for times). You enter the brownstone on the ground floor to wait for the tour. Our guide was Ranger Russell. If you arrive early, you can visit the museum, which was unfortunately closed for renovations when we were there.
One of the first things you’ll learn is that Theodore did NOT like to be called Teddy, his family called him TR or “teedie.” Throughout the tour, Ranger Russell called him TR; even the brochure does not use the name Teddy. (However, I read one article that claimed TR did not mind being called Teddy by the American people).
You can take photos in the house, but without the flash. Throughout the tour, there is a consistent narrative about a sickly, yet highly intelligent, young TR who battled his physical limitations to “embrace the strenuous life” becoming one of our most charismatic presidents.
Ranger Russell was a very good story teller with a genuine affection and admiration for TR. He proudly showed us the makeshift gym and weights on an upper level porch where a young TR trained to overcome his physical limitations. TR was too sickly to attend regular classes (“home-schooled until Harvard”), but young Theodore was a voracious reader and scholar. He even published books on birding when he was a teenager.
There is also a consistent narrative about the combination of Roosevelt relatives who influenced Theodore and shaped his values of fairness and giving back as well as his determination and fortitude – Quaker grandmother, Southern mother married to wealthy Yankee philanthropist father (Theodore Sr) who took family on trips all over the world, etc. You’ll see some Egyptian pieces in the house, references to a memorable trip.
Here’s something interesting about the house itself: it’s on the right spot, but it’s not the original house. The Roosevelts lived in the brownstone on this site until TR was 14. Eventually, the neighborhood changed, and the house became a commercial property. After TR’s death in 1919, a coalition of citizens purchased the site, knocked down the building and rebuilt the house – talk about commitment! More than half the furnishings in the house are original to the Roosevelt family. TR’s sisters and wife consulted about color schemes and layouts.
That would be TR’s second wife. One of the saddest stories we heard was how TR’s first wife and mother died on the same day (February 14, 1884). TR rushed back from Albany when his wife became ill after his first child was born. His wife Alice died two days after giving birth. His mother had died earlier that day in the same house (not in the TR birthplace house, another Roosevelt house on West 57th Street). That sadness led TR to seek an escape out west, which fueled his love of the great outdoors and his commitment to conservation. (He left his daughter in the care of his sister).
Back on our house tour, we also learned about the Dutch influence in New York City. The name “Roosevelt” means “field of roses” in Dutch. Look for rose plates in the dining room. There were three other people on our tour, one of whom asked about the pronunciation of the name. Ranger Russell confirmed that it is “rose-e-velt” NOT “roos-e-velt.
And, according to Ranger Russell, you can credit the classic brownstone design to the Dutch who, because of floods, designed houses with stoops and stairs up to the front door.
And speaking of stairs, I was a little annoyed to find some women smoking on TR’s steps. Seriously? This is a home of a president and a national park.
The tour lasted just under an hour. If you’re in New York City, it’s definitely worth a trip. For more information about visiting the Theodore Roosevelt birthplace, click here for our “On the Map” page featuring our Nerd Trips “ABCs” (admissions, bathrooms, concessions, etc).
If you visit TR’s birthplace, be sure to allow time to peruse the exhibits in the museum gallery. Oh yes, I went back. A trip to New York more than two years later offered the opportunity to visit the museum exhibits – more on that in the next post.