“Once you have lived in New York, and it has become your home, no place else is good enough.” ~John Steinbeck
At least seven of our forty-four US Presidents have been residents of New York. Many persons know about the Roosevelts, but there were more.
At the time of the signing of the US Constitution (1789), the nation’s capital was New York City (1785-1790). George Washington was sworn in as President (1789-1797) on Wall Street; John Adams, as Vice President. Shortly after the Inauguration Adams established a residence at Richmond Hill, Manhattan, New York. His wife, Abigail, was enchanted with the 26-acre bucolic estate. “The house stands upon an eminence: at an agreeable distance flows the noble Hudson, bearing upon its bosom innumerable small vessels laden with the fruitful productions of the adjacent country. Upon my right hand are fields beautifully variegated with grass and grain, to a great extent like the valley of the Honiton in Devonshire.” It was the most-admired home she’d ever had, but the idyllic setting was to be short-lived, because the very next year the capital was moved yet again, this time to Philadelphia. Abigail, forced out of her lovely New York residence, hated Philadelphia, even more by contrast, and within six months returned home to Massachusetts. President John Adams (1735-1826), after his election (1796), continued to live in Philadelphia until the nation’s new and permanent capital was built in Washington, DC. Just before the next election (1800), 1 Nov, Adams took up residence in the White House, of which he wrote, “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.” Though there only a short time, Adams was the first President to occupy the White House. After the election (1800), which Adams lost to Jefferson, Adams retired to his farm, “Peacefield,” in Quincy, Massachusetts.
MARTIN VAN BUREN
President Martin Van Buren (1782-1862), “the Little Dutchman,” had his home “Lindenwald” in Kinderhook, New York, east of the Hudson. When he was campaigning (1836, 1840), against William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), the talk was that Van Buren, the New Yorker, was affluent and accultured and that Harrison, living on the frontier, was the rugged individualist. Such is the way of election propaganda and perception: New York was rich and refined, therefore Van Buren was rich and refined; Indiana and Ohio were the frontier, therefore Harrison was a frontiersman. However, almost the reverse was true. Van Buren was the small rural farmer—much of the Hudson River Valley is rural. A man of no small prominence, Harrison, on the other hand, was born on a James River plantation, Berkeley, Virginia; networked with the elite; was the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, and others; was appointed governor (1800-1812) of the massive Indiana Territory by John Adams; resided at “Grouseland,” an elegant Georgian/Federal sun-filled mansion, Vincennes; and had served as Congressman and Senator from Ohio. Van Buren won his first election against Harrison, but lost what would have been his second term, to the same opponent, who gave the longest inaugural speech in history, in the middle of a snowstorm, and died a month later of pneumonia, consequently having the shortest Presidential tenure on record.
President Millard Fillmore (1800-1874) was the Vice President who filled out the term of President Zachary Taylor (1784-1850), who had died in office. Born in a log cabin in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, Fillmore had a small home in East Aurora, New York, not far south of Niagara Falls and Buffalo. A modest man, of humble origins, self-educated, at age 23 he passed the Bar, married a schoolteacher, allied with New York’s boss Thurlow Weed, fought Freemasonry, dabbled in politics as an ideological Libertarian (formally Whig), lost and won elections, served four terms in Congress, was working as comptroller of New York when chosen as Taylor’s Vice, succeeded to President, oversaw the Compromise of 1850, but was forced out of reelection (1852) over the issue of slavery. Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) won that election. The following Presidential election (1856) Van Buren again tried for the Presidency, but lost to James Buchanan (1791-1868). By this time a widower, Fillmore remarried and settled into his role as small-town attorney.
ULYSSES S GRANT
President Ulysses S Grant (1822-1885) had homes in several states. He was born and reared in Ohio, matriculated at West Point, New York, and became a soldier. His wife, Julia Dent, was the sister of a classmate and the daughter of a farmer who lived outside St Louis, Missouri. Here the young Grants built a loghouse they called Hardscrabble: today Grant’s Farm. He later spent part of his adult life in Galena, Illinois, working in his dad’s leather shop. Grant’s neighbors described him as “plain and neighborly,” “simple and transparent.” Grant fought in the Mexican War and commanded the Civil War, emerging as conquering hero. At the end of the war he lived briefly at 3238 R St NW, Washington, DC. Showing their admiration, locals presented Grant with a furnished house on Bouthillier Street, Galena, where he probably would have stayed if there had been nowhere to go. However, that same year his soon-to-be brother-in-law, who had made a fortune in the stock market, bought a large, four-story, Federal-style home at 205 I Street NW, Washington, DC, and passed it on to Grant; so Grant moved to DC, barely using the house in Galena. Just three years after the war (1868), Grant was elected President and for eight years occupied the White House, but he was never happier than the day he left. “I felt like a boy getting out of school.”
After his tenure, Grant moved to a handsome new multi-storied, multi-unit residential building at 3 East 66th Street, just off Fifth Avenue, New York City. The unit was so crammed with memorabilia, including a large library, that it looked like a museum. Blessed with an insatiable desire to roam, at his own expense (not until 1953 did Congress vote pension, Secret Service, and office support for ex-Presidents), Grant traveled the world. One man called him “the greatest traveler that ever lived.” For two and a half years, he circumnavigated the globe: he left Philadelphia 17 May 1877 headed east and returned 16 Dec 1879 still headed east. He visited more countries and saw more people, from heads of states to nobodies, than anyone before. “What Grant liked best was to escape and wander the streets” (James Russell Lowell). As a matter of fact, while he was still President, he logged so many miles away from Washington that Congress once launched an investigation into his walkabouts. Later, after Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer, someone loaned him a two-story frame house, with a wide porch, at Mount McGregor, Wilton, New York, up in the Adirondacks, eleven miles north of Saratoga. Shortly afterward he died and was buried in New York City.
CHESTER A ARTHUR
President Chester A Arthur (1829-1886) was born in Fairfield, Vermont, but spent most of his adult life in New York, where he passed the Bar and practiced law. In New York he became active in Republican politics, served as the state’s quartermaster (responsible for food and supplies) during the Civil War, later was named, by US Grant, customs collector for the Port of New York, before winning election as Vice President (1880). That election year his wife of thirty years, Ellen, died of pneumonia, leaving behind two adult children. Like Andrew Jackson, Arthur entered Washington life as a man recently widowed; he never remarried. After President James A Garfield was assassinated (1881), Arthur succeeded him as President, but did not seek reelection in his own right (1884). Instead, he returned to his Manhattan brownstone, 123 Lexington Avenue, where he lived out the remainder of his days. Arthur, a dapper man of the world, coveting his privacy, destroyed many of his letters and papers after he left office; therefore, little is known of him. Scarcely two years after leaving the White House, he died of kidney disease and was buried beside his wife at Albany Rural Cemetery, Menands, New York. He had outlived her by six years, but during that short time he’d been Vice President and President.
President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), or TR, was a New Yorker by birth and rearing, his early years being spent in a townhouse at 28 E 20th St, New York City. The family was privileged: they traveled abroad to Europe and North Africa, the dad helped to found the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Roosevelt matriculated at Harvard, graduating Phi Beta Kappa; he entered Columbia Law School, but did not complete his studies, deciding instead to become a politician and change the world.
The year he graduated Harvard (1880), on Valentine’s Day, TR announced his engagement to Alice Lee. Eight months later, on his birthday, they were married; but the marriage was to be short-lived. His wife, Alice, gave birth to their daughter, Alice (12 February 1884). Two days later—on Valentine’s Day, four years to the day since the announcement of their engagement—in the wee hours of the morning, his mother, Martha, died of typhoid; hours later, in the same house, his wife, Alice, died of kidney failure.
Leaving the newborn with his sister, Roosevelt took refuge in his work and in a private place, far away, acquired only five months before, the Chimney Butte Ranch, aka Maltese Cross Cabin, Medora, North Dakota. On his return to the Dakotas, after the death of his wife (1884), TR acquired another property, the Elkhorn Ranch, which he held for about fifteen years.
Three years into his widowhood, Roosevelt remarried (1886), to an old flame, Edith Kermit Carow, and moved into the rambling Victorian, Sagamore Hill, that he’d been working on before Alice died, in Oyster Bay, out on Long Island. Here, besides Alice, the couple was to rear five children: four boys and one girl. The youngest son Quentin, an airman, was killed over France during World War I; Kermit died during World War II while posted at Fort Richardson; the oldest son, TR’s namesake, Ted, died leading the assault on Utah Beach (D-Day 6 June 1944); Archie (85) was the only one of four sons to live out his natural life. The two girls, Alice (96) and Ethel (86), also lived to old age.
Before his Presidency, TR served in the state legislature, on the US Civil Service Commission, as police commissioner, and as assistant Secretary of the Navy. During the Spanish-American War (1898) TR and his Rough Riders led the charge up San Juan Hill. Now a war hero he had no trouble winning the 1898 election as governor of New York, then the 1900 election as Vice President to President William McKinley. When McKinley, a few months into his second term, was assassinated in Buffalo, New York, Roosevelt was sworn in as his successor.
One of TR’s foremost interests as President was conserving our natural resources. To this end, he created the US Forest Service, National Parks, National Monuments, as well as bird and game preserves. Another interest was the Panama Canal (1904-1914), a project the US took over from the French, worked on during TR’s Administration, but did not complete until the Wilson Administration.
Roosevelt surrendered the Presidency to his VP William Howard Taft in the 1908 election, but he was a hard man to keep down. In the elections of 1912 and 1916, he ran on a third party ticket, the Bull Moose Party, and lost both elections to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. During those years (1913) he made a long exploration down the Amazon, a trip that ended so disasterously, compounded a few years later by the premature death of his son Quentin (1818), that he lost heart. He died at home, in his own bed (1919), of a pulmonary embolism and was buried across the road from his home, in Young’s Memorial Cemetery. Archie (youngest of the surviving children) telegraphed his siblings: “The old lion is dead.” TR’s wife, Ethel, outlived him by almost thirty years.
FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), a distant cousin of TR, later nephew-in-law, was also a New Yorker by birth and rearing. His parents’ home, Springwood, which he inherited, was situated on the banks of the Hudson River in Hyde Park, New York. After he became President (1933-45), FDR added on and refurbished the place, so that the home you see today is more than the home in which he grew up. Eleanor was never comfortable with the house because she thought of it as his mother’s place. FDR was the only President who lived all his life in the house in which he was born. The only home FDR and Eleanor owned together was the house in Warm Springs, Georgia: a humble place set in a pine forest, with a small, old-fashioned summer-style kitchen. Franklin and Eleanor are buried together at Springwood.
Now, the myth is that these New Yorkers were rich and powerful; but if you visit the homes of Van Buren, TR, and FDR, you will see that they were not the elaborate America’s Castles of truly rich and powerful persons like Jay Gould (“Lyndhurst,” Tarrytown), John D Rockefeller (“Kykuit,” Sleepy Hollow), or Frederick Vanderbilt (“Vanderbilt Mansion,” Hyde Park). The Presidents’ homes were made of wood, simple brick veneer, or stucco, sometimes humbly assembled, with ordinary yards and ground cover; the homes of truly monied persons were solid masonry, made of stone or reinforced concrete, with manicured lawns and stables.
“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” ~John Updike
Copyright © 2016 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Niagara Falls