On Saturday, October 29, 2016, just 158 years and two days after the birth of Theodore Roosevelt, the National Park Service celebrated the reopening of Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, a brownstone located at 28 East 20th Street in New York City, with tours of the house, a variety of programs in the auditorium on the fourth floor, and a block party with National Park Rangers, Rough Riders, and Theodore Roosevelt himself (in the form of an excellent interpreter), who wandered among the crowd, greeting people, chatting, regaling them with stories (I was treated to a story of his being the first President to submerge in a submarine, which led to his Executive Order creating a submariner pay supplement to honor the dangerous work of the sailors working under the sea) and posing for photographs.
Seeing the NYPD officers asking for photographs with their former commissioner was truly charming.
The opening ceremony began at 10 a.m. with Rough Riders and the NYPD Color Guard presenting and the National Anthem sung by an NYPD officer.
Park Ranger Daniel Prebutt opened the ceremony, followed by Joseph Laird, Commissioner of the National Parks of New York Harbor.
Phil Roosevelt, a cousin three times removed from Theodore Roosevelt then gave a moving tribute to “Teddy” and his family who had lived in the house for so long. Theodore Roosevelt spoke, then, at length, and without notes. He spoke of his parents and grandparents, of how his formative years, spent in this house, were so important in who he became later in life. Phil Roosevelt then wielded the scissors to cut the ribbon and open the house to visitors.
Unlike Sagamore Hill, Theodore Roosevelt’s Summer White House, which also reopened this year (the Centennial of the National Park Service) and was converted to a museum immediately after the Roosevelts stopped using it as a residence, Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace is a reconstruction. When asked if he wanted the house preserved, Teddy, modesty itself, declined and the house was torn down. After his death, Theodore Roosevelt’s widow and sister formed the Womans Roosevelt Memorial Association, and they worked to rebuild the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. Because the original 1848 brownstone had been torn down and replaced by commercial buildings (the Roosevelts left the house when Teddy was 15, because the neighborhood was becoming too commercial – it was just one block away from Broadway in the “Ladies’ Mile”), the space had to be completely rebuilt, opening as a museum and educational space in 1923.
Theodore Roosevelt’s Uncle Robert had lived in the brownstone next door and his house was still standing, so the replica Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace was based on Uncle Robert’s home and the family’s memories of how it had been. Approximately 60% of the furniture is original to the home.
Until the current refurbishment, the brownstone museum was fully compliant with 1923 state-of-the-art fittings and fixtures, even down to the cloth-covered electrical wires. The current refurbishment included bringing the house up-to-code for the 21st century, adding two wheelchair elevators, for access to the house and to the auditorium on the fourth floor, plus ADA compliant bathrooms; new fire alarms, smoke and heat detectors, and sprinklers; and replacing the fire escape window with a full-size door, so expertly done that visitors not-in-the-know will assume the door is original to the (1923) house. Visitors will be reassured to know that the fire escape was also fortified. One internal structure that did not need refurbishing or bringing up-to-code was the 1920’s elevator, which is, unsurprisingly, a favorite for the elevator repairmen to service.
Out on East 20th Street, during the block party, Junior Rangers were sworn in by the National Park Service, the Rough Riders rode rough, and face-painting and a photo booth were also available, all to the backdrop of Celebration, a 1905 Wurlitzer organ playing period pieces.
To honor one of the original purposes of the opening of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, several programs were offered in the auditorium. The first program was slightly delayed, due to Theodore Roosevelt challenging Ranger Prebutt to a race up the stairs, causing the audience to burst out laughing when we heard the reason for the delay. Then Theodore Roosevelt spoke at length and “off-the-cuff” (without notes), telling us his life story through anecdotes, witticisms, and proverbs. It was like stepping back in time. I highly recommend attending any events at Birthplace that include this Theodore Roosevelt interpreter. Later programs in the auditorium included a John Muir music and spoken word program and more performances by Teddy.
For more pictures of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, please see the gallery below. If you have any questions about any of the pictures that I haven’t described here, please let me know in the comments and I’ll follow up with as much information as I can.
For videos of the opening ceremony, please see the gallery below.
I want to thank Martin Christiansen, Daniel Prebutt, and Barbara Applebaum, of the National Park Service, for providing access to the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace and the re-opening ceremony and for sharing stories about the house and the Roosevelts. Their generosity with their time and information is very much appreciated. Any errors in my article are mine alone.