This is the week of homecoming, warm welcomes, families gathered, and blessings counted. And the places we connect ourselves with. A recent Hallmark movie, The Thanksgiving House, caught the nostalgia that polarizes the feelings for people we love.
There was once a house in uptown Manhattan. In 1873 when it was built, it was at the city’s edge, two blocks away from 800 acres of newly-plotted Central Park. The family who lived there could look out its upper windows to see picnickers in summer and ice skaters in winter. It was very large, so much so that it could accommodate 500 guests at a time, which it did for the elder daughter’s debut into society. Stately on the outside, its interior gave a glimpse of the indulgent late Victorians: wood paneling and fireplaces, thick Persian carpets, custom carved furnishings, and room after room of brick-a-brack.
Harvard University photo.
Six West Fifty-Seventh Street was home for Theodore Roosevelt as he grew into manhood, and the setting for much of my book. But I found that aside from a few pictures showcasing the interior, it was gone. I could not find what the outside looked like, what they would have seen walking in the front door or leaving for the opera, or any other visual idea to help me understand their lives at the time. I could do that for their early home downtown, which has been reconstructed and is a National Parks site today. Or Sagamore Hill, Theodore and Edith’s permanent home on Long Island, which is close to a hundred percent the way it was when they lived there. Even his small cabin in North Dakota is open to the public.
Why had this home vanished?
The head of the family, Theodore Sr., died there in 1878, a major blow to the family. The mother and her adult children continued to live in the home for another six years, but then, the unthinkable happened: Martha and her daughter-in-law, Alice, succumbed to different illnesses there on the same day. Brother Elliott told Theodore there was a curse on it, and in at least one place it is referenced as being “the bad luck house.” It was too much for the rest of the family. The shell of memories was sold off and household possessions dispersed, and in the 1920s it and adjoining houses on the block were torn down to make way for commercial buildings.
I started digging to find out what it had looked like. I found one photograph on a blog that was mistakenly identified (which turned out to be one of the Vanderbilt homes) and many other well-documented photos of mansions on another blog, Daytonian in Manhattan. Just not the one I needed. At the New York Public library I discovered a picture of the cousins’ house at Four West Fifty-Seventh Street, right before demolition. Then I found one of the row of houses on the street, taken from Fifth Avenue, which showed horses and carriages passing by.
Third on the left, with bay windows, is the Roosevelt home on West Fifty-Seventh Street. This photograph was taken from Fifth Avenue. Across the street is the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion, the largest home ever built in New York City, where the Bergdorf-Goodman department store is today. New York Public Library photo.
Finally, in the archives of the New York Times, there was a Sunday article, “President’s Roosevelt’s Many Homes,” from October 1905. There, although grainy and overprinted by the family crest, were the bay windows and the brick, the face of Six West Fifty-Seventh. Theodore’s sister, Bamie, remembered, “From the beginning Father had brought to the house the people who were most delightful to know, people interested in political and civic matters.” Among them were John Hay, Joseph Choate, Louisa Schuyler, and William Dodge. From the home the family went to society dinners, weddings, cotillions, art galleries, and concerts. Then, of course, there were family gatherings, which could have been almost daily since the James Alfred Roosevelts lived next door. The teenaged children had friends over after the picnics and ice skating, and Theodore’s nature club often met there to report on their adventures.
One of the buildings between Fifty-Sixth and Fifty-Seventh Streets today.
Happiness. Tragedy. The story of a family. As in all of our lives, it is good to remember the times, even measured in a few short years, when doors are closed and voices and laughter ring out inside.