The recently released Ken Burn’s documentary and PBS series about the Roosevelt family showcases the public life and private times of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor, their commitment to those less fortunate and the value of public service. The series stitches together old photos and videos, all brought to life with voiceovers including actress Meryl Streep providing the voice of Eleanor.
In viewing this series, memories returned of my visit to Roosevelt’s Hyde Park residence, Roosevelt’s Presidential Library and near by, FDR’s Top Cottage. The trip to upstate New York was a part of my research for a book my co-author, Drue Lawlor, FASID and I were writing at the time, Residential Design For Aging In Place.
However, for me, this trip north of New York City was the opportunity to see Top Cottage in person and one that I was so looking forward to. For you see, there is something special that makes this Dutch Colonial–style residence quite unique: President Roosevelt personally designed this place to accommodate his disability and is one of the earliest such examples of accessible design, if not the very first.
Most people know today FDR had contracted a type of polio and was careful to keep his condition under wraps fearing he would lose respect of the Democratic party, his voters and supporters and the public in general. Out of respect to the office of President, radio and newspaper coverage was kind and never made a big story of his physical condition. As a result, very few people in this country or in the world realized he had the crippling disease and required the use of canes, leg braces and later a wheelchair.
Around 1938, Roosevelt, in thinking about his retirement at the end of his second Presidential term, longed for a residence far from the spotlight of the White House where he could, in his words,.... “become the independent person he longed to be”.
First sketching out a floor plan on the back of a large postal envelope, FDR created plans for a personal, accessible retreat he named Top Cottage near the top of a hill and overlooking the Hudson River. Located near his family’s estate in Hyde Park, NY, the small building would permit him to move easily and independently from space to space while remaining outside of the public eye.
In his plans, he designed the interior to accommodate the wheelchair with one flat floor and with everything he could want or need located within easy reach of someone in a sitting position.
Many features made this home easy to live in such as level thresholds, large sliding doorways, electrical outlets high on walls and windows at lowered levels that afforded him the ability to enjoy the view outdoors from his wheelchair.
Once the house was completed, FDR joyfully played host at Top Cottage at a very personal level and welcomed many world leaders including Britain’s King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill. Stories include the President "fixing toast to serve his friends and guests without the help of staff."
" ....On my trips to Hyde Park from Washington, it was almost impossible to have any time to myself in the big house. Therefore, I began talking about building a small place to go to escape the mob."
If there was one memory of that trip that I will always cherish, it was the opportunity to work with the staff at the Roosevelt Presidential Library. They were most accommodating in helping find materials, photos and drawings about Top Cottage for our book. At one point during one late afternoon research meeting, a curator brought out a very special brown archival box, asked me to put on white gloves to handle the aging documents and then suggested that what was inside was exactly what I was looking for. Hmmm. Very interesting.
Inside the box was the original sketch of Top Cottage by the President, the architectural drawings and his hand-written notes about making the interior accessible and accommodating to his needs on various pieces of papers. What a treasured find and what an awesome experience. I still get goosebumps thinking about that particular moment.
FDR is remembered for many things during his career,... perhaps best for his development of the New Deal programs that helped America out of the Great Depression. And while he might not be identified as having first developed the concepts behind "aging in place,".... he was certainly among the first to apply the principles of barrier-free, universal and accessible design.
Top Cottage is open only to those with reservations. Although the original furnishings were lost, the Park Service has now furnished the main area with reproductions and antiques which match the original contents. It is a wonderful case study and would recommend a trip to see this house overlooking the forest and Hudson River from the accessible deck.
Every day, we incorporate universal design practices and aging in place principles in our work with clients permitting them to "stay in place." And in doing, our design enhances their quality of life in much the way Top Cottage provided FDR with comfort, security and safety.
Airline travel is not one of my favorite things to do any longer. I used to do a lot of traveling as the national president of my professional society, ASID.
And there are many reasons for this displeasure: juggling the luggage, long waits in security lines, fighting to get the last few inches of overhead space, the attitudes of some of the overly worked airline staff and generally the lack of proper cleanliness in airplane interiors. And when you are on the TSA's Watch List... as I am, travel to and from gets really complicated. Sigh.
But in the news recently has been the fight over seat space with people actually doing battle at 30,000 feet over a few very precious inches of space.
• Talk about your turbulence !!
Seems that reclining one's seat has been more than the passengers in the rows behind can tolerate. However there are other reasons why airline travel is just so uncomfortable. One important factor is the shape and form of the seats, frames and cushions themselves. Not only is the problem just the distance between the seats - and recently the lack of peanuts - but anthropometric factors are contributing to the disagreeable travel experience.
In a survey and study authored by a colleague, Dr. Kathy Robinette, professor and head of the department of design, housing and merchandising at Oklahoma State University, the design of the chairs themselves contribute to the discord - just as much as the limited knee room, the lack of peanuts, and the smelly guy sitting in the window seat beside you who had to get up and visit the facilities four times on the one hour flight to Palm Springs. Dr. Robinette states that most airline seats are simply not designed to fully accommodate the human body in its various shapes and sizes. And she would know.
Dr. Robinette's survey, called the Civilian American and European Surface Anthropometry Resource project, measured the bodies of 4,431 people in North America, the Netherlands and Italy. The survey collected a voluminous amount of data about its subjects, ranging from height and weight to shoe and bra size. and guess what?
The chair design itself is abysmal.
And in case you didn't know... the design issue goes beyond just passenger comfort. Dr. Robinette notes that travelers who are squeezed together and continually touching that smelly guy in the window seat are more likely to spread cold viruses or other illnesses to a fellow passenger. ( Oh joy ! ) People who are confined to tight seats and who can’t move comfortably are at risk for painful “hot spots” — precursors to the bed sores that occur in nursing home patients who aren’t moved frequently. (Well sign me up for that.)
So I was pontificating a few days ago about the design of things and how it can affect one's well being. You may not realize it but design impacts the human experience in so many ways, often in such a totally transparent manner that we often never think twice about design itself or even think about how some thing might function. It just does.
Good design is just there... in the background.... doing its job.... making our lives more comfortable, secure and safe. ... and some would say attractive. For what its worth since I have said this repeatedly...design is much more about function than good looks. Perhaps Steve Jobs said it better than I have been able to,.... "Design Is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works"
Think about the design that surrounds you now. Look at the way things are put together. Chances are the design of a lamp, a pillow, an accessory just didn't happen by accident but with a determined purpose. Design is like that. It requires design professionals like me to make it work, to function as needed and then of course to make it look as if you spent a lot of money when we all know you started out shopping at Ikea.
( It is OK if you do. I shop there, too. )
So contemplate this: How does the design, shape and form of things that surround you make life better?
• In our homes, offices and stores?
• In our cars and in cafes?
• In the things we buy and use like an iPhone or a iPad?
Maybe some day... even at 30,000 feet way above the planet, design will make planes more comfortable and flying a little less stressful with more leg room and better designed seats.
---> By the way... where is my little bag of peanuts?
Time has really flown this summer in Palm Springs. It is hard to believe but it has been just 90 days since the work to remodel and rehab the Welwood Murray Memorial Library began in earnest. In that time much of the real heavy duty work has been completed by the contractors. In just another 90 days or so, barring any unforeseen challenges, new cabinets, furnishings + fixtures will once again be filling the space. And the Welwood will reopen much to the delight of the many long time locals.
There has been a lot of complexity in accomplishing the renovation. First everything associated with the old mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems had to be carefully dismantled and removed to make way for the new and energy efficient ones.
The old floor, which had been originally stained in a dark color, then at one point covered over with linoleum, and in later years even carpeted with a gold and red tweed, was saw cut open to permit the installation of underground systems for air conditioning plus electrical, phone and data conduits. When that task was completed, new concrete filled up the "swimming pool" sized canyon.
Stud walls have framed in areas that will hold the Palm Springs Historical Society's archives along with a dedicated archive viewing room, something long over due for that group. In the east wing, now to be a community meeting room, new walls already define a mini-proscenium for future presentations and lectures, complete with seating for up to forty people, overhead projector and large flat panel display.
After the Labor Day holiday, electricians will be on site pulling their wires, positioning the outlets for lighting and adding a sophisticated network of connections for phone, Internet connections and state of the art security. Next drywall will be put up and trim moldings installed that will mimic the original and ready for painting. For those interested in the historical nature of the Welwood, we've designed the interior to leave much of the original "poured-in-place" concrete walls exposed just as it was when the Welwood first opened in February 1941.
The final drawings and finish specifications for the custom cabinetry, tables and seating have been completed and final tweaks to their concepts have been approved by the three stakeholders, the PS Library, the Bureau of Tourism and the Historical Society, who will each share the space and maintain the building's operations.
In the weeks to come, the old (and new) concrete floor will once again return to a stained concrete finish in a grey green color. Special pendant lighting fixtures and wall sconces are being fabricated especially for the interior and will feature LED illumination. And a few extra special surprises to the interior will surely delight the locals when those details are revealed.
What some have noticed is the Welwood has a fresh coat of paint on the exterior walls, a desert-ivory tan color, with window and door frames repainted to their original dark chili pepper color.
Every resident in Palm Springs should be very proud of the work that is going on in this historical location. And the determined efforts of many are making this building into the a focal point it once was.
When complete, the Welwood will be a place to meet up with friends and family and a place to catch up on the latest news. For tourists, it will provide resources on hotels, restaurants and places to do and see when in town. For researchers and historians, there will be a special place to learn even more about the century of progress in Palm Springs and in the Coachella Valley.
Check back soon for updates as the rehab work continues on the Welwood Murray Memorial Library Building Renovation in the weeks to come.
Michael is an award winning interior designer based in Palm Desert, CA. He is a Professional Member of the American Society of Interior Designers and a member of the ASID College of Fellows.
As a Certified Aging In Place Specialist, he creates smart looking spaces that are safe and secure and create homes for a lifetime.
And with thirty plus years in the profession, he has honed his humor, elevated his passion for design and sharpened his wit to not take anything too seriously except his design work.