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.
9/18/2014 07:57:12 am
Wonderful article ! Thank you Michael Thomas for sharing this story. I will put Top Cottage on my bucket list. And completely forgot that the PBS story was running this week. Thanks for the reminder.
9/18/2014 08:14:27 am
I really enjoyed this article especially since my parents are at the point in their lives ( 82 and 85 ) when their old house doesn't always fit their needs any longer and we're going to have to make some changes. And I am going to be 65 soon yet aging in place seems like it is only for old people or someone in a wheelchair like FDR but I know its not and should also plan to make the changes I need to in order to stay in place. Great blog !!
Barbara and Jan
9/18/2014 08:57:50 am
We really like your blog. Always interesting stories to read. We've been to Hyde Park but missed visiting Top Cottage. Guess we will need to go back. And yes... we've been watching the Ken Burn's story and his work is always great. - Jan.
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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.