The House

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.

West 57th Street photo for page 94

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.


You’d think by now I would have covered most of the story of TR’s father, “Thee,” among posts about the rest of the immediate family.  But the elder Theodore’s influence was very, very, large.  It is hard to imagine it occured in a lifetime of only forty-six years, before telephones and motorized vehicles.  In his time he was mightily revered by the people of New York.

President Theodore Roosevelt kept a portrait of his father above his desk.

He was his parents’ youngest, born in 1831.  A friend of the family remembered that people would say, “There is lovely Mrs. Roosevelt with those five horrid boys.”  Coming from a Quaker background, she told her sons that along with greater wealth came greater responsibility to the less fortunate.  Thee took this to heart.

He didn’t attend college, which his father thought would ruin him, but instead traveled in Europe and became a junior partner in the family glass importing business.  He courted and won a southern girl for his wife.  After he brought her north to New York City to live, they had four children, but each one suffered from a physical malady: a defect of the spine, or asthma, or seizures.  In the meantime their father’s “troublesome conscience” was struck by the multitude of poor immigrants living in the city.

 Brooklyn newsboys, late Nineteenth Century.  New York Public Library photo.

The Children’s Aid Society had several divisions, one of which was the Newsboys’ Lodging House.  Thee visited the boys there every week, eating supper with them and talking with them as if they were his own.  He helped send many children to homes in the west, one of whom became the governor of Alaska.  In other charity work, he was careful to make inquiries into the actual conditions of the poor and not “do harm by teaching those who were independent to rely on others for their support.”

During the Civil War he did not join the army because of his wife’s Confederate sympathies, and regretted the decision the rest of his life.  He was away for weeks at a time in an organized effort to support families of soldiers.  With philanthropist William Dodge, he started the Allotment Commission to urge troops to send some of their paychecks home instead of wasting money on sutlers.  He stood out in cold, muddy fields enrolling men in the program with great success.  When he returned home himself, he did his best to help injured veterans get back into the workforce, finding jobs they could do without the use of an arm or a leg.

 .The Famous New York Seventh, Just after Reaching Washington in April, 1861.

Seventh Infantry of New York, 1861.

He taught a missions class, and when his sister-in-law saw him gathering his own little ones outside the church, it reminded her of the character “Greatheart,” protector of children, in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  He helped start a new building for the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital by inviting wealthy friends to his own parlor.  Children with spinal and bone defects were waiting there, along with braces and devices that might help them if funds were given.  When he entered friends’ offices, the checkbooks automatically came out.  “How much this time, Theodore?” they would ask.

Thee was neither solemn nor sad.  The Sunday School teacher who also gave daily Bible lessons to his young children was a strong, handsome man who dressed well and enjoyed life in general.  He danced at parties late into the night, never seeming to get tired, and drove fine horses.  He took his family on a Grand Tour of Europe not once, but twice.  In the cultural arena, he was in on the founding of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History.

It seemed he was the healthiest in the family, but he was the one who left first.  After a brief foray into politics, he died in horrific pain of cancer, in 1878.  Hundreds of men, women, and children waited outside his home at Six West Fifty-Seventh Street that February hoping for news of his recovery.  When he passed away, he was mourned and remembered from pulpits all over the city.  The son named for him tried his best to carry out his ideals as long as he lived: in the battlefield, in the state, the nation, and the world.  It is odd no one would have written a biography of such a man.  There is one, however, currently in the works by Keith Muchowski, an academic librarian and National Park Service volunteer.  Thee’s older son said many times, “He was the best man I ever knew.”  He was Greatheart, the first Theodore Roosevelt.

There Were Never Such Devoted Sisters

Irving Berlin wasn’t thinking of Anna and Corinne Roosevelt when he wrote the song for White Christmas, but that line certainly describes them.  Except their devotion was, as long as they lived, for their brother, Theodore.  Anna, four years older than he, was called “Bamie” or “Bysie.”  Corinne, three years his junior, was known as “Conie.”

Bamie was put in the category of the “big people” by Theodore, Elliott, and Corinne from the beginning.  She was very smart and strong-willed, and resembled their father in the ways she guided and managed people.  In the summer when the boys were small, she had them pretend they were horses in a toy harness, running with them up and down the beach.   Although she suffered from Pott’s disease, tuberculosis of the spine, it never slowed her energetic pace.

Bamie with niece Alice Roosevelt.  (American Museum of Natural History)

A natural mentor, Bamie encouraged Theodore in his wildlife projects.  He probably wrote to her as often as he did to his parents.  She studied at Mlle. Souvestre’s School near Paris and at eighteen had two debutante parties: one in Philadelphia because their new home wasn’t finished, and the other in New York when it was, for 500 guests.   After the fashion of young ladies of the time she didn’t attend college herself, but went to get Theodore’s room ready at Harvard the summer before he left.  When Theodore’s first wife died, it was Bamie who took care of their newborn daughter (she also lovingly helped another niece, Eleanor).  Later, when Theodore was president, he walked over to Bamie’s home on N Street in Washington to talk over issues he was dealing with.

Theodore and Corinne.

Corinne was same age as, and best friends with, Edith Carow, Theodore’s second wife, from the time they were little.  At age four, when the family had just moved to the country for the summer, Corinne spoke up ahead of her brothers to be the first to ride a new pony.  “I think I did it just to see the light in my father’s eyes,” she said.  She, like Theodore, was severely asthmatic.  In Harvard’s Houghton Library is her little diary of the first family trip to Europe.  The eight-year-old drew a picture of herself on the first page and looped her script carefully, as one who has just learned the art.  Corinne wanted to do everything her brothers did, even if it meant tripping on her skirts and falling down as she ran alongside the carriage in the Alps.  In Europe again two years later, Corinne patiently listened to Theodore’s “lecture” on quail.  She also cut her finger dissecting a bird, which was the extent of her career as a naturalist.  Staying at a German home that summer with her brothers, she wrote stories, as they did, for a literary club they had with cousins their age who were also living abroad.
Later Bamie married William Sheffield Cowles, an admiral in the navy, and had one son.  Corinne and her husband Douglas Robinson, a financier, had four children.  The sisters and their husbands dined with Theodore the first night he stayed in the White House, as Edith and the children were still in Oyster Bay.  Strangely enough, Bamie, whom some thought could have been president if she’d been a man, never believed in women’s suffrage.  But Corinne introduced presidential candidate Leonard Wood at the Republican National Convention of 1920 in Chicago.  She wrote My Brother Theodore Roosevelt two years after he died, and also books of poetry.  Both sisters outlived Theodore by several years, collaborating on the reconstruction of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace in Manhattan, their childhood home.  It is operated by the National Park Service today.  The past preserved, it is a place where visitors can lose themselves for a time in the story of our twenty-sixth president’s family, which included two very devoted sisters.

Henry Adams’ Salon

The Amazing Bird Collection of Young Mr. Roosevelt ends with Theodore’s entrance to college.  The ten years previous to that event had been, for the most part, an tranquil period of growth in his theatre of family and friends.

Henry Adams was teaching medieval history at Harvard when the teenager landed on campus in 1876.  Adams had experimented with the seminar system, having a half-dozen students read for themselves and discuss/debate rather than giving a straight lecture to them himself.  He reportedly said to a student with a question, “How should I know?  Look it up!”  The Brahmin professor invited the Knickerbocker Roosevelt to dine at his home on at least one occasion during his freshman year.

If there was such a thing as American blue blood, it ran in the Adams family.  Henry’s great-grandfather and grandfather were presidents, and his father was ambassador to England during the Civil War.  Henry worked as his secretary.

Adams in 1858, when Theodore Roosevelt was born.  Photo: Massachusetts Historical Society.
With practical experience abroad observing matters of state, Henry moved on to political writing in Washington, D.C.  An intellectual (“You shoot over the heads of most people,” his father admonished), Henry said that Ulysses S. Grant would have seemed archaic even to cave men.  His wit and word orchestrations served him well as editor of the National Review.  By 1889 when Theodore Roosevelt came to Washington as a civil service commissioner, Henry had been to Boston and back.  His wife died in a tragic manner, but he eventually resumed having friends over for food and conversation.

The mansions of Henry Adams and John Hay on H Street.  An elegant hotel, the Hay-Adams, now occupies the site.  Washington Life Magazine photo.

Henry’s neighbor was best friend and equally short-in-stature John Hay.  Hay had been secretary to Lincoln during the Civil War and co-authored his biography.  He would later serve as Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt.  The Hays, Henry Cabot Lodges, Donald Camerons, and Roosevelts, all political insiders, were regular company.  At a time when women were constrained by more than corsets and floor-sweeping skirts, the ladies took as much part in the talk as the men.  Other close friends were geologist Clarence King, British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice, and artists Augustus Saint-Gaudens and John La Farge.

Across the decades the gang that John Hay found so happy knew more than a few others: Henry Hobson Richardson, Mark Twain, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Rudyard Kipling, Edith Wharton, Horace Greeley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Matthew Arnold, and the royal family of Tahiti.  Henry said that his circle’s alliance “was undisturbed by power or patronage,” for neither first family Harrison nor Cleveland shared the same interests.

Adams and Hay were condescending to the brash young Roosevelt behind his back.  In ten years when Theodore became president, he invited Henry across Lafayette Square to his mansion for dinner.  Henry complained the occasion was like a boys’ school out of control, and later assigned two words to the chief executive: “pure act.”  With his wealth Henry could pursue whatever he wanted, and continued to write and travel.  His nine-volume history of the United States during the Jefferson and Madison administrations is a classic, as are his novels and autobiography.  The latter, written in third person, won a Pullitzer Prize the year after he died.

Massachusetts Historical Society photo.

One of the places I’d like to go back in history to is a Sunday morning breakfast at Henry Adams’ house in the early 1890s.  Providing a forum for pliable minds is a wonderful gift.  Isn’t that what teachers do?  Adams was irreplaceable as a patron of the age, and even though he wouldn’t say so, as a teacher.

Now if I could just find his menus.

A blog of this length about a man with so many insights into history has limits. For more reading, and more tangents, try Henry Adams, a Biography by Elizabeth Stevenson; The Five of Hearts, An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends 1880-1918 by Patricia O’Toole (a near-miss for a Pullitzer); and especially his self-summary, The Education of Henry Adams.