Prologue Magazine

Roosevelt and His Library, Part 2

Summer 2001, Vol. 33, No. 2

By Cynthia M. Koch and Lynn A. Bassanese



Designing the Building

The President took a personal interest in the library's Dutch colonial architectural design, which symbolized for him "a quality of endurance against great odds— a quality of quiet determination to conquer obstacles of nature and obstacles of man." The library was the most important of a number of Dutch colonial stone buildings built under his direction; these included his own Top Cottage, Eleanor Roosevelt's Val-Kill, new federal post offices, and schools and libraries built throughout the Hudson Valley by Roosevelt's New Deal agencies. He loved this style because he found in it "an architecture which is good in . . . that it does not of necessity follow the whims of the moment but seeks an artistry that ought to be good . . . for all time to come. We are trying to adapt the design to the historical background of the locality and to use . . . the materials, which are indigenous to the locality itself. Hence the fieldstone for Dutchess County."

FDR took a tremendous interest in every detail of the planning for his new library. He worked at first with Henry A. Toombs, an architect in Georgia with whom he had worked on the design of Top Cottage and the Little White House in Warm Springs. In 1938 Louis Simon, head architect of the General Services Administration and supervising architect of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, replaced Toombs. With both Toombs and Simon, Roosevelt shared his concept of a building in the form of an open square of natural fieldstone, one story in height with a high pitched roof, built in his favored Dutch colonial style.

Insistent that ample space be made available not only for the papers but for the vast collection of naval art, ship models, and gifts that he had accumulated, FDR ordered surveys of his holdings. Fred Shipman of the National Archives, who would later become the first director of the library, assessed the archival holdings, while Laurence Vail Coleman, director of the American Association of Museums, surveyed the museum objects. Their examinations were limited to what was on hand and viewable (mostly in Washington) and did not include accurate estimates of materials located in the Roosevelt mansion in Hyde Park and the New York townhouse or the gubernatorial materials in Albany. Using the information gathered, Simon began work on the preliminary sketches. FDR had already determined the external appearance of the building, and he took an active role in planning the interior as well— the stack space, exhibit rooms, the research room, and his own study.15

He specified separate rooms for his naval collection and a room for the use of the local historical society. But neither Roosevelt nor his committee had any idea in 1938 of the vast growth that the collections were to undergo or the great crowds of visitors who were to put such a strain on the accommodations for them. They could only guess at probable increases and did not even imagine that President Roosevelt's term of office might extend beyond January 1941. Nonetheless Roosevelt recognized early on the need for eventual expansion: he at first sketched out a series of U-shaped additions to the rear of the open square. In 1942 he made the sketches that were realized in 1969 when the library was expanded to accommodate the Eleanor Roosevelt papers and a gallery in her honor.

The level of Roosevelt's involvement becomes clear from Archivist Robert Conner's recollection of a 1939 White House meeting with the President and Waldo Leland. At the time, the three of them discussed many of the particulars in regard to the library, including what kind of containers they should use for the documents; ultimately, the President specified even the design of document boxes. He also took a personal interest in the problem of exhibiting the naval art, ship models, presidential gifts, gadgets, and trinkets. Leland expressed some concern that they might be allotting too much space to the museum functions of the library. To this the President replied, "Well, you know if people have to pay a quarter to get into the library they will want to see something interesting inside."16

Not everyone was pleased with the President's decision to build his own library and museum. Mr. Clarence Boothby, a resident of Chicago, wrote to FDR on December 13, 1938:

Amid recent press reports that you plan to give your Hyde Park estate to the United States Government as a permanent memorial to yourself, provided the government and citizens will supply suitable endowment and moneys for perpetual upkeep, please accept the following humble opinion of the writer: Future generations should be allowed to forget class hatred, graft, crooked NLRB, waste, court packing, the social security fraud, communistic appointees, John Lewis, Bridges, Perkins, Earle, Guffey, Barry, Black, Murphy, Wagner, Etc., Etc.,— the TVA scandal and all the rest of your ridiculous and unworkable alphabet soup.17

But even in Roosevelt's day, the library's champions outnumbered its detractors. Archibald MacLeish, then Librarian of Congress, spoke at the laying of the library's cornerstone. He began his speech by remarking that some might consider him an inappropriate speaker for such an occasion since many believed that the material destined for the Roosevelt Library rightfully belonged in the Library of Congress. He eloquently made the case for the presidential library instead:

The material which is to be deposited here is material which any custodian of records, any keeper of books, would wish if he could to set apart as a single and separate collection, no matter where it was placed or in what company. It is material, which forms, by the necessities of its nature, a single and homogeneous whole, and material, which no librarian would treat in any other manner. What distinguishes these papers is the fact that they are not merely the papers written in a particular sequence of years, nor the papers written by and to and about a particular man, but the papers of a Time— the papers which speak of, and speak for, and therefore recreate, a Time which the mind and memories of man can recognize. . . . They belong by themselves, here in this river country, on the land in which they came."18

The Library Opens

The formal dedication of the new Franklin D. Roosevelt Library took place on June 30, 1941, only eight days after Hitler invaded Russia. Given the gravity of the times, it was a simple ceremony with the President and his guests gathered on the flagstone walk in front of the new building. Immediately in front of them an army bugler stood, near the flagpole, accompanied by two uniformed troopers acting as the honor guard for the American flag fixed in a position to be hoisted. Newspaper reporters and photographers stood waiting at a respectable distance.

John McShain, the contractor who had supervised the construction, announced that the building was now completed and handed a large brass key to Frank Walker, treasurer of the corporation that had raised the money for the building from private contributions. After a few brief remarks, Walker turned the key over to Archivist Connor, who accepted the building in behalf of the American people. The President closed the ceremony with a brief statement on how happy he was to see the building so well constructed and hoped it would last for many generations. FDR then raised his arm toward the flag and ordered it hoisted. As the flag was slowly raised, the assembled crowd sang "God Bless America."19

Library officials had no idea how many visitors to expect, but whatever the number of visitors, they would only come to the library to look— not to work. Roosevelt had by then abandoned his plans to retire to a quiet life working on his collections in Hyde Park and remained instead President of a nation that seemed destined for another war. Although between three and four thousand books and some fifteen thousand cubic feet of records had been received at Hyde Park, the bulk of the material that would form the library remained in Washington. In a June 22, 1941, interview for the Hudson Valley Sunday Courier, library director Fred Shipman admitted, "We have nothing to excite scholars yet. We have important segments but we haven't continuous records of any one subject." He added that the staff hoped to complete the earlier files and open them to the public reasonably soon. Reasonably soon would be May 1, 1946, thirteen months after FDR's death. Only then was the library's research room opened to scholars.

This made the museum the public focus of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in its first years. The first twenty-five cents was collected on July 1, the day after the formal dedication. According to a Washington Post article dated July 2, 1941, the first ticket buyer was a lifelong Republican, Floyd B. Avery of White Plains, NY. "I'm a Republican but I think it is a very interesting collection," he commented after viewing the exhibits of the President's papers, books, and mementos. On its first business day the library took in 161 admission fees, a cash total of $40.25.20

Just what did Mr. Avery see on that summer day he spent in Hyde Park? The President's Room in the corner of the first floor suggests the living room of a comfortable home. The fireplace is faced with antique Delft tiles, each carefully placed in its location according to FDR's plan. The walls were painted a subtle green-grey, the woodwork a slightly darker shade. Books were everywhere: in the secretary opposite the fireplace, in the built-in bookcases that flanked the secretary, in great piles on two tables near FDR's desk, just as he left them during his last visit. In these early days, the President himself came and went frequently (and privately) by a door at the left of the fireplace.

The historical society's room, the Dutchess County Room, was in the northeast corner of the building. A colored map of Dutchess and Putnam counties hung on the east wall, and a newspaper page of twelve scenes of Hyde Park in the late nineteenth century hung opposite. A rather slim collection of books on Dutchess County was housed in a cabinet on the other side of the room.

The collection in the naval exhibition room was quite an awesome sight. Some 125 ship models, most of them of early sailing vessels, were on display on side and center tables. The walls, covered with oyster-white monk's cloth, were filled with paintings and colored prints of marine scenes, battles and famous vessels. In the main exhibition room, lighted cases showed some of the things, often of considerable intrinsic value, that had been sent as gifts and tributes to the President from all over the world. In smaller cases on either side of the main entrance were original drafts of the President's addresses, including his speech accepting the 1932 presidential nomination; his "I hate war" speech delivered in 1936; and the "Victory Dinner" speech from 1937. Other cases contained stamp albums selected from the President's large collection and photographs of the President and his family.

Two galleries, the "oddities" and the vehicle rooms, were located in the basement. The latter contained old sleighs, carriages, and two iceboats— FDR's own Hawk and the famous Icicle that won his uncle, John Roosevelt, many an iceboat title. A presidential memorandum for Library Director Shipman dated just eighteen days before the opening reflected FDR's personal and all-encompassing interest in the museum: "I enclose two copies of prints enlarged from a Kodak, showing me at the helm of the ice yacht HAWK. I suggest that you have this framed and hung on the wall over the spars. It can be labeled 'FDR at helm of ice yacht HAWK off Roosevelt Point, 1905'."21

Officially named the "Gift Room," the things displayed in the "oddities room" were chosen from the thousands of gifts presented to the President and Mrs. Roosevelt by admirers from all parts of the world. Some were indeed quite odd, such as a seven-foot-high papier-mâché sphinx carrying FDR's visage, complete with cigarette holder. It was presented to him at the 1939 Washington Gridiron Dinner when he was dodging questions about running for a third term. Many gifts represent the work of talented amateurs, while the finest designers and craftsmen made others. Nicknamed "oddities" by the President, they ran the gamut from the artistic to the homely, clever, patriotic, personal, serious, witty, or broadly humorous. No matter what was sent to the President, he accepted it in the spirit it was given. FDR took tremendous interest in these tokens of affection and proudly displayed them in the museum.

FDR Working in the Library

During his trips home to Hyde Park, President Roosevelt managed to spend as much time as he could in the library, sorting and classifying his records and memorabilia. It was wartime then, and from his study in the library, Roosevelt delivered several of his famous "fireside chats." And he loved to show the place to important visitors. Winston Churchill, China's Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Princess Martha of Norway, King George of Greece— all signed the blue leather guest book FDR kept in his study.

The President worked closely with Margaret Suckley, his cousin and close confidante, who was appointed a member of the library staff in September 1941. She as well as other staff members cataloged and arranged the documents, books, and objects that he sent to the library. Suckley kept a diary, which is an invaluable record of those early years, a time when the President of the United States conducted the nation's business from his presidential library. But most of the time, he conducted private matters here, finding respite in the minutiae of his collections. See, for example, her entry for September 13, 1943: "The P. came Friday morning in the midst of it all— I got him a seat cushion off one of the big blue chairs and ensconced him on the floor in front of a cupboard— He worked there for an hour and a half while I flew around getting things done, my desk piled high, two trucks and a table full of things waiting to be taken care of."22 During his many visits in the spring of 1944, the President and Miss Suckley worked on a "pile of things." As she recorded on May 23, 1944:

The President sat on the yellow covered sofa, his feet on the new stand made down in the shop. . . . I suggested the new Persian rug from the Shah of Persia for his room at the Library and while he was resting, we all got to work at it. . . . It took 10 years to make this rug and it is supposed to be worth $20,000. There are 50 knots to the square inch. It feels like velvet, has every possible color and harmonizes with everything— It is really beautiful and perfect for this particular room.23

On April 14, 1945, Miss Suckley's diary carries the final entry recording this remarkable era: "One of the hardest things I have had to do was coming to this Library on Tuesday morning, with the realization that F will never be seen here again, and that his body lies at rest in the garden." She expressed what everybody in Hyde Park knew:

The most interesting period of this library is over, the period of the President's association with it. What we must try to do is make it the kind of place the President wanted it to be— His spirit is here, and when I get a sort of helpless, "what's the use in doing anything" feeling, I can feel his thought that no matter what happens, one must never give up— that was his motto and the reason of his greatness. The president's room I hope will remain as it is always— for he fixed it this way, placed the furniture, had the pictures hung, etc.24

It has not been difficult for subsequent library staff to fulfill Miss Suckley's wish because the Roosevelt presence remains forever vital. Thousands of researchers, millions of museum visitors, and hundreds of staff have worked at and visited the library since it opened sixty years ago. As they have studied and viewed the documents, recordings, photographs, and objects, a few may take for granted the astounding collection of material gathered in the small fieldstone building. But none are unaffected by the force of Roosevelt's character. It is seen in the choices he made for his library, but even more so in the spirit of reform and public service documented in the papers and artifacts housed there.

Creating the Future at the Roosevelt Library

At the start of this new century, FDR's vision for the library seems particularly prescient. He saw it not as a place of antiquarian interest but first and foremost as a resource for new generations seeking to create their own futures. And he was right. The political and economic challenges of the 1930s and 1940s resonate regularly on national and international policy agendas: Social Security, welfare reform, the regulation of private industry, and the rise of new democracies out of totalitarian regimes, to name a few. The historical origin of these debates is now more than a half-century past, but we have a new challenge. If the library is to continue to provide lessons from the past, it is incumbent upon us now to begin the hard work of recommitting ourselves to Roosevelt's vision in order to meet the demands of new generations. That work has already begun.

With the Internet and other innovations in communications technology of the past few decades, the library's work moved beyond the walls of the building in Hyde Park in ways that Roosevelt never envisioned. The library's web site ( is the most significant new way that the archival collections of the Roosevelt Library are made accessible to scholars, students, teachers, and the general public. The web site was developed in partnership with Marist College and IBM and reaches nearly one million researchers, students, and educators every month. This number was unimaginable in the 1940s. But even email— and before that the telephone— transformed the way research is done. Today the archives staff answers more than three thousand inquiries every year from telephone and email, a number that far outstrips the six hundred or so researchers who visit in person.

An avid reader of history, the President was also an inveterate collector with a curator's eye and a librarian's love of detail. Throughout his life he built personal collections that included fifteen thousand books, two hundred naval ship models, naval prints and paintings, and large collections of stamps, presidential gifts, and memorabilia. It is therefore not surprising that he created a public museum as well as a research archive; the Roosevelt Library was to be a showcase for his personal collections as well as a home for his papers. Visitors still love to see Roosevelt's ship models and the memorabilia he called his "oddities," but they also expect more. New technologies help do this better, but the task at hand is deeper than that.

For it is most dramatically in the museum that the work has changed from Roosevelt's day. This is because museums have changed. A half-century ago, museums were exhibit halls and repositories for collections: some were virtually unchanged from the private "cabinets of curiosities" of eighteenth-century gentlemen out of which our first museums grew. Today museums are expected to provide "interpretation," to tell a story, to link objects together in a way that educates and illuminates— whether it be the narrative of an era or of the life of an extraordinary President and first lady.

Today's museum visitors (especially our student visitors and their teachers) come expecting to learn about the Roosevelts and their place in history— and they bring with them learning styles that are shaped by the electronic world of television and computers. Just as the Internet and computers are revolutionizing historical research, so too is technology transforming the best museums. That is why the FDR Library is now embarked on a series of bold new initiatives to update the exhibits and programming.

In cooperation with the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and the National Park Service (which administers the Roosevelt Home and Val-Kill), NARA is building an exciting new visitor and education/conference center and renovating the library for new and expanded exhibition space. The new center will be named for Roosevelt's second vice president, Henry A. Wallace and is intended to serve both as an orientation center for visitors to the Roosevelt historic site and a conference facility for scholarly gatherings and national and international policy meetings, some hosted by heads of state. It will house a 150-seat auditorium and three classrooms with a capacity of sixty students each. The classroom spaces can be transformed into one grand hall suitable for large social events. The facility will also be available to the community for public meetings.

A special high-tech conference room will be equipped with state-of-the-art videoconferencing equipment so that activities in Hyde Park may include participants at locations around the world. This will be particularly useful to the Roosevelt Institute, which sponsors Study Centers in the Netherlands, Moscow, and South Korea. The institute will also hold its biennial United States Four Freedoms Award ceremony in the center and will be able to broadcast the ceremony to remote locations. In short, the new center will enable us to provide educational programs commensurate with Roosevelt's original vision.

For the more than 125,000 members of the general public who visit the Roosevelt Library and National Historic Site, the center gives us the opportunity to offer a comprehensive orientation to the Roosevelt world in Hyde Park— complete with a video orientation and introductory exhibits. In addition to their introduction to the library and home, visitors will also be able to buy tickets and receive directions to Val-Kill (Eleanor Roosevelt's cottage) and Top Cottage, Franklin Roosevelt's retirement home that will open to the public this year.

Inside the original library, changes are afoot as well. We are working with the Roosevelt Institute to plan a new changing exhibit gallery that will allow us to explore topical and timely issues, show more of our historical collections, and develop thematic programming related to exhibits. That gallery will also permit the library for the first time to offer major traveling shows, a facility that is sorely needed today.

Equally exciting, in the next phase of the redevelopment program, the library will reconceptualize the permanent exhibitions in the main floor galleries. Sweeping changes will allow visitors to literally step back in time, to put themselves in the era of the New Deal and World War II and experience for themselves the challenges and accomplishments of the Roosevelts and Americans of their generation.

These are exciting times at the Roosevelt Library; they are also historic times. For these essential projects will continue into the twenty-first century Roosevelt's own vision for his library as a living institution dedicated to a belief in the capacity of people "so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgement in creating their own future."

See also these related articles:

Visit the FDR Library

Cynthia M. Koch is the director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. Lynn A. Bassanese is the director of public programs at the FDR Library.


1. Geoffrey Ward, "Future historians will curse as well as praise me," Smithsonian, December 1989, p. 58.

2. Ibid.

3. Samuel Morison's remarks at a dinner, Feb. 4, 1939, at the Hotel Carlton, Washington, DC, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY.

4. Ward, "Future historians," p. 58.

5. President's remarks on the opening of the Roosevelt Library, June 30, 1941, Speech File, FDR Library.

6. Ward, "Future historians," p. 62.

7. Ibid.

8. R.D.W. Connor, "The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library," The American Archivist, April 1940, p. 89.

9. Donald R. McCoy, "The Beginnings of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library," Prologue: Journal of the National Archives 7 (Fall 1975): 145.

10. Felix Frankfurter to Missy LeHand, Nov. 20, 1939, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

11. FDR to Frankfurter, Nov. 21, 1939, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

12. FDR memo for Molly Dewson, Mar. 28, 1940, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

13. Connor, "The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library," p. 87.

14. Ibid.

15. Waldo Leland, "The Creation of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library: A Personal Narrative," The American Archivist 18 (January 1955): 21.

16. Ibid.

17. Clarence Boothby to FDR, Dec. 13, 1938, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

18. Remarks of Archibald MacLeish, Nov. 19, 1939, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

19. Report on Groundwork of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library by Matthew M. Epstein, Mar. 15, 1941, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

20. Newspaper clipping, Washington Post, July 2, 1941, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

21. Presidential Memorandum for Mr. Shipman, June 12, 1941, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

22. Geoffrey Ward, Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley (1995), p. 237.

23. Ibid., p. 316.

24. Ibid., pp. 423 - 424.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.