Making A Day of Hyde Park
Springwood, the Dutchess County estate commonly (though erroneously) called Hyde Park, is to the pantheon of great American houses what Franklin Delano Roosevelt, its scion, is to the pantheon of great American men— perhaps not the most brilliant, but so preternaturally confident, relaxed, good-humored, and patrician that any shortcomings are quickly overlooked. Like FDR, Springwood bears no trace of the arriviste striving and pomposity that casts a pall over the Vanderbilt Mansion next door. It is comfortable American well-to-do, rather than lugubrious European rich — better suited to a Democracy and certainly to a Democrat.
For those of us who live so near to it, it is easy to postpone a visit to Springwood on the grounds that it will always be there and will never change. Not so. The same resistance that FDR had to his programs are more than echoed in the ones our current president is having. (And, when you finally go there, also give a moments’ thought to presidential libraries, in general. FDR’s, a modest stone and slate-roofed affair, is as unlike the architectural monuments costing tens of millions that have become the recent norm as Springwood is to the Vanderbilt place. But I digress.)
The Roosevelt administration started with a bang. When he was elected, the Depression was entering its fifth year. Thousands of banks had failed, leaving their uninsured depositors penniless. Farmers in foreclosure and school teachers working without pay were demonstrating in the streets and being beaten and jailed by the police. Revolution appeared to be imminent and, to forestall that unthinkable end, the equally unthinkable means, a dictatorship, was being floated by, among others, Walter Lippmann, the pre-eminent liberal columnist of the day.
But Roosevelt did not use the state of emergency he inherited from Herbert Hoover as an excuse for making a power grab. He did not suspend the constitution or expand executive privilege to wartime levels, as many suggested he should. Instead, he instituted the first of his largely symbolic (in the beginning, at any rate) programs for putting the nation back to work and used the relatively new mass medium of radio to get his message across. That message was, of course, “We have nothing to fear…” but the subtext read, “Cheer up. Look at me, I can’t even walk, and I’m confident. Now that I’m running things, you can be confident, too.” Before his administration was 100 days old, there were long lines outside the banks, not of panicky people desperate to withdraw their life savings, but of upbeat depositors who saw it as their patriotic duty — if not as downright fashionable — to pull their cash from under their mattresses and put it back in the banks. The Age of Spin had dawned.
And then, on the 101st day, the president went sailing, and the press said, “well deserved.” Ah, those were the days. It’s all there, just down the road, inventively laid out for us at the The FDR Library. We sit in a replica of a Great Depression Era kitchen (built by McElroy Scenic Studios of Ashley Falls, MA, as was the rest of the exhibit) and listen to the radio as FDR’s voice assures us that, “We have nothing to fear, but…” well, you know. Viewed up close, yet from the safe distance of 75 years, it’s fascinating.
There’s More to Springwood Than Politics
Now let’s see, what else is interesting? Oh right, sex! Many people who visit Springwood combine it with a tour of the Vanderbilt Mansion, as it’s right there. But unless you’re really keen on ormolu, you can skip that and visit Wilderstein instead. While house tours won’t resume until the first of May, the riverside grounds surrounding the house are open to the public, and seeing the mansion itself from the outside is more than worth the trip. (There will, however, be a Daffodil Tea with a tour of the house on Saturday, April 20 @ 1 p.m. to get “a glimpse of what tea time was like during the Victorian era.”) This 35-room Queen Anne pile overlooking the Hudson in Rhinebeck, a few miles north of Springwood, was the ancestral home of Margaret (Daisy) Suckley, who died there at the age of nearly 100 in 1991. Upon her death, a battered black suitcase was found beneath her bed and in it scores of love letters from her distant cousin FDR. Although she was one of the four women (Eleanor not among them) who were with Franklin when he died at Warm Springs, Georgia in 1945, it had not been suspected that they were lovers until after her death. (See related article: A Grand Middle Ground.) Val-Kill, Eleanor’s modest digs, and Top Cottage, FDR’s private hideaway in the hills three miles above Springwood, are also both worth the detour. (Top Cottage, like Wilderstein, reopens May 1.)
And now to lunch: There is only one sane option. The Culinary Institute of America, on the same road five minutes south of Springwood, is Disneyland for foodies. The campus has five restaurants, each specializing in a different style of cuisine and service. I don’t care for table-side service myself (think: silver domes whisked away in unison and frequent outbreaks of flambé) for the same reason I don’t care for ormolu, so I tend to avoid the admittedly fabulous Escoffier. The Ristorante Caterina de’Medici has wonderful Italian food, particularly the fish. But for lunch, my favorite is the St. Andrews Café. Don’t let that “Café” business fool you: this is a bright, attractive, carpeted, tablecloth joint, a perfect place to take a breather in the middle of a day of touring. While you are free to order a pizza or a sandwich at St. Andrews, to do so is to entirely miss the point. The food here is seriously tasty—modern, healthy, inventive, well-prepared and well-priced. Ask your waiter, a student, what to order. Trust him; he’s on his way to becoming the next Wolfgang Puck. —Marilyn Bethany
Springwood, the Roosevelt home, and The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, 4079 Albany Post Road (Route 9), Hyde Park; 845.486.7745; combined admission $14.
Top Cottage (re-opens May 1); admission, $8.
Val-Kill Cottage, the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site; admission $8.
The Vanderbilt Mansion; admission, $8.
People under 15 admitted free; over 62.
Wilderstein (re-opens May 1), 330 Morton Road, Rhinebeck; 845.876.4816; admission $10; seniors $9; children under 12 free.
The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park; 845.452.9600 or reserve on-line