Visitors to Hyde Park who want to learn about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt find themselves confronted by an embarrassment of riches. Just touring Springwood (FDR’s boyhood home) and visiting the Presidential Library and Museum can seem like a lot, especially if one takes the time to also enjoy the Rose Garden and pause at the gravesite of Franklin and Eleanor, visit the outbuildings, and wander the grounds. The combined ticket for both the house tour and the library and museum is valid for two days, and with good reason.
As the home of FDR’s mother, Sara, and the one place on earth where FDR felt truly ‘at home’, Springwood naturally highlights Franklin’s life more than Eleanor’s. Fortunately, visitors who wish to know more about Eleanor need travel only a few miles, to Val-Kill, to visit Eleanor’s home.
Like Springwood, Val-Kill is a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service (NPS). Visitors can tour Eleanor’s home and get an in-depth look at her life. The grounds of Val-Kill are shaded, beautiful, and tranquil, and provide a respite from any sense of hurry or hectic. If one feels the need to spend days at Springwood and the Library/Museum to take it all in, one wants to spend days at Val-Kill just because it’s so beautiful.
The visitor to both Springwood and Val-Kill can be forgiven if, after so much stimulation, wonder, information, inspiration, and reflection he or she feels that it’s just about enough, and time to retreat or move on. Hence, many visitors never make it to Top Cottage, which is the house that Franklin built for himself and would have been his home had he survived his presidency.
It’s about a 30-minute leisurely walk through the woods from Val-Kill to Top Cottage (with a fairly steep but short hill to climb at the end), or visitors can hop the bus that departs from the Wallace Visitor Center three times each day. Visitors arriving on the bus (and hikers luckily arriving at the same time as the bus, as I did on a recent visit – otherwise the house is closed) are greeted by park staff and
invited to take a comfortable seat on the beautiful stone veranda for an in-depth discussion of the Roosevelts, the Cottage, the dignitaries who visited and the events that took place there. Visitors are then invited to wander the Cottage and ask whatever questions they may have. As none of the furniture is original or attempts to mimic anything original, visitors are invited to make themselves comfortable, sit on the sofa if they wish to rest, and just enjoy being in the space and taking in the displays. The groups tend to be small and intimate, and I found myself learning a lot also from my fellow visitors, from the questions they asked, and from their conversations with our guide.
Visitors to Hyde Park hungry to learn about the Roosevelts and a crucial time in our nation’s history should try to save a little bit of their appetite for Top Cottage. It’s the perfect capstone experience, a way to share with professional staff and other visitors what they’ve learned and have experienced. And it’s a great feeling to visit a place with a storied past that says, “Please sit on the furniture!”