One of the final things uttered by President Theodore Roosevelt as he lay ill in bed in January 1919 was an aside to his wife, Edith: "I wonder if you will ever know how I love Sagamore Hill." A refuge for the popular leader that helped him reconnect with his childhood and when needed, avoid the glare of the media, his Long Island home recently reopened its doors to the public this past Sunday, after undergoing an extensive restoration project overseen by the National Park Service. While it's impossible to appreciate the man's love for the only place he ever owned, the detailed renovation has given the public an opportunity to see the sprawling family home in pristine condition, one that reflects the gregarious leader and his eclectic life.
"The goal was to protect the house first, and his collection second," says Susan Sarna, Museum Curator at the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. "We were awarded the money for the restoration in 2008, and spent three years studying how to best preserve the house before we even started to pack the objects."
If visitors compared the newly renovated interior with a photo from 2011, before the $10 million restoration project began, they wouldn't notice an item out of place. But they might get the sense that they're looking at the building in Technicolor. Hundreds of specialists restored and refurbished the interior while ensuring the exterior was reinforced and ready to stand for decades. From repairing the roof, gutters and woodwork and installing a new LED lighting system to replacing all 98 windows and reapplying period-specific wallpaper, the project brought the home up to date, while making sure that guests only see what Theodore Roosevelt saw.
The character of the home comes from its collection of original furniture and artifacts, numbering more than 12,000 distinct items including an extensive collection of artwork as well as Roosevelt's 36 pieces of taxidermy. While the Park Service oversees many Presidential homes, few boast 10-foot-long elephant tusks, a Cape Buffalo, and an elk's head sporting a sword and a hat from Roosevelt's time in the Rough Riders.
"This home is unique in that what you see inside is 99 percent original," says Sarna. "The only things that aren't original are the curtains, because they're organic and fade."
Designed by New York architects Lamb & Rich and built from 1884 to 1885 at a cost of $16,975, this 26-room, shingle-style Queen Anne home was the only home Roosevelt ever owned, and functioned as an important retreat throughout his life. Built on a Long Island peninsula where he summered during his youth, the complex was initially going to be named Leeholm, after Roosevelt's first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, but after she passed away, he chose to name it after the Indian chief Sagamore Mohannis. From his time serving as the New York State assemblyman to his two terms in office to his death in 1919, Roosevelt felt a special connection to the Oyster Bay home, spending long stretches here with his wife Edith and their children. Transformed into the summer White House during his time in office, Roosevelt received so many dignitaries and guests at the home during the course of his political career, including the ambassadors that would later negotiate the end of the Russo-Japanese war, that a piazza was eventually expanded to accommodate a podium.
This wasn't the first time the home has been restored, but the National Park Service hopes this project proves to be the most significant in terms of maintaining and restoring historical accuracy. After Edith Roosevelt passed away in 1948, the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association acquired the home in 1950 and undertook a significant restoration, adding a porch, which the National Park Service recently removed. Since acquiring the home in 1963, this project was the Park Service's first true deep dive into the largest presidential home it oversees, which gave those working there a greater appreciation of the Oyster Bay mansion's unique character.
"Roosevelt makes the entire home special," says Sarna. "The fireplaces and the woodwork in the house is outstanding, and the architectural features in the home are incredible. It's hard to notice, but there's a symbol on the fireplace mantel, a flower you see throughout the house."
∙ Sagamore Hill [National Park Service]
∙ Revisiting the White House's Presidential China Sets, in Ascending Order of Flamboyance [Curbed]
∙ The Many Georgetown Haunts Of John F. Kennedy [Curbed DC]