National Park Units of Lower Manhattan: Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site

Sean and I visited New York City the final weekend of February 2020, a time that now feels out of time compared to the indelible history of what was about to happen, indeed what was already happening all but undetected in that city. We were in Manhattan to see a Broadway show, part of Sean’s Christmas present and the culmination of a mindful shift in our gift giving away from things and toward experiences. For both of us it was a return to a city where we have long individual histories, but which we had not visited for quite some time in no small part because our attention had been turned largely West toward the National Parks. Although we were there to see a show, we also visited four National Park Units in Lower Manhattan, testament to the travelers we have become.

In December, Sean had remarked on how much he was enjoying the Original Broadway Cast Recording of the jukebox musical, Jagged Little Pill, based on Alanis Morissette’s 90s-defining mega-hit album from 1995. He commented on the how good the performances of the songs were and how pleasantly surprised he was by the plot. So I looked into tickets and found great seats for Saturday, February 29. I was also charmed by the prospect of seeing it on Leap Day. Flights to and from LaGuardia Airport were reasonable for that weekend, so I went ahead and got us tickets. (I almost ended up getting us tickets for a weekend in May (which in normal times would have been a better season to be in New York). Glad I didn’t.) February was also ideal because a big work project for Sean wrapped up early that month so a little getaway was ideal.

In what had become our normal plan for traveling, we left in the evening, flying out late on Thursday to have a full day on Friday, and both Saturday and Sunday, before flying home early Monday afternoon. Sean had taken Friday and Monday off and I had arranged my schedule to make it possible.

That Thursday, February 27, though, was still a busy day for me and an example of what my new life was like since leaving Openlands and starting my new business, Bold Bison. First I had a breakfast meeting at our apartment with John, who came armed with a small mountain of delicious takeout. In his rigorous teacher training, he was having a little trouble with maintaining a solid physical classroom presence so we practiced some public speaking and theater exercises for him to try.

When we were done, I told John to take the leftovers home and waved goodbye not knowing that we wouldn’t see each other again in person until July.

Then I hopped in a rental car and drove down to Starved Rock State Park Lodge for the opening day of the Prairie State Conservation Coalition Annual Meeting. I was delivering a short workshop, “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Conservation” to a nearly 100% white and 100% straight audience. It went well, and it was good to see a lot of old friends and colleagues. The conversation was rich enough and thought provoking enough that one of the attendees emailed me about her worries that she had been a bit thoughtless with a comment. I weighed her email on the flight that evening and in the hotel next morning before composing my reply. We set a date to meet up and unpack it further when I was back in Chicago. That has not yet happened.

After the presentation, I drove back up to the city, returned the rental, and stopped home to scarf down some early dinner and grab my bags before hopping a Lyft to the airport, where I met Sean who had come from the Loop. We checked our bags, passed through security, and waited. Our flight ended up being delayed a couple hours. We had dinner at Fronterra, our usual, and dessert of a couple cake-pops.

While we waited to board, I read a few articles about the novel coronavirus and its potential threat.

When we landed, LaGuardia was a mess. A Lyft to lower Manhattan would cost $250? We realized that the airport was in the middle of a huge construction project. We waited in line for a shuttle to the taxi dispatch area and then waited in line there for a taxi. Finally, we were on our way through Brooklyn and over the Williamsburg Bridge to the Lower East Side. The cab turned up Orchard, turned again on Houston, passed Katz’s Deli, and turned onto Ludlow, depositing us at the Hotel Indigo Lower East Side.

Even as part of a chain, the hotel was hip as fuck in no small part because of a trendy bar, Mr. Purple, on the 15th floor. Our huge room was on the 12th floor with a great view of the Lower East Side and Lower Manhattan.

It was after 11 when we arrived. Even though we were tired, we stayed up much later settling into our room and just generally being excited for our weekend ahead.

Next morning, Friday, February 28, I awoke early. I caught up on email and began exploring National Park Service sites nearby to visit while Sean continued to sleep.

He exercised in the hotel’s gym before we set out for the day’s adventures around 10:30am.

We wandered through the East Village looking for coffee and breakfast. Our ultimate destination was Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site on East 20th Street, but we were on no schedule.

Image: Sean M. Santos

I guided us down 2nd Street toward the intersection with 2nd Avenue, a corner that has some personal history for me. In the late 1990s when I was in college I considered joining the religious order that ran my high school, the De La Salle Christian Brothers. It was founded by French St. John Baptiste de la Salle as a teaching order, sort of a male equivalent to nuns. In the Americas, the order provided a counterbalance in many dioceses to the influence of the Jesuits, also teachers but ordained priests.

For reasons lost to time or at least to me, Detroit was in the order’s New York District, so opportunities for young men considering the vocation were centered on New York, whether it were winter retreats in Poughkeepsie or summer teaching opportunities in New York City. I participated in three such summer opportunities between 1997 and 1999, two in the South Bronx and one in the East Village, at La Salle Academy at 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street.

There was a lot in the Christian Brothers that attracted young Brandon, particularly the call to teach and to serve the poor. There was also the attraction of living in community with other men, but for the first couple years I wasn’t able to grapple with those implications, even as I developed crush after crush on handsome, earnest young men also considering the vocation.

Ultimately, my time in the Brothers’ contact program was formative in all sorts of ways, it exposed me to social justice issues, it allowed me a taste of returning to urban life after my family fled Detroit to the suburbs, and it was crucial for my coming out process, particularly that final summer of 1999 in the Village. I would return home that August from teaching at La Salle Academy, read Angels in America for the first time, and begin coming out.

Sean and I walked past La Salle 2-Street and saw that it was now something called Nord Anglia International School, no longer a Christian Brothers high school. It felt appropriate for an order that was already in serious decline twenty years ago and a neighborhood that had gentrified astonishingly since I briefly knew it back at the end of the twentieth century.

We enjoyed an unseasonably warm morning walking up Bowery and Park to Astor Place, where we stopped for good coffee and breakfast sandwiches.

After breakfast, we continued walking toward 20th, conversing about money and fame as we went.

When we arrived at 28 E. 20th St., there was a line of school busses outside, indicating that there must have been a field trip inside. Neat!

Although Theodore Roosevelt was born on this site on October 27, 1858, he was not born in this handsome townhouse. Young Teedy (as his family called him) lived in the house that once stood here until he was 14, when the family moved uptown. In 1916, the house was demolished. But after Roosevelt’s death in 1919, historical preservationists moved to restore the house—something Roosevelt expressly didn’t want. The house was rebuilt based both on family recollections and on Roosevelt’s uncle’s house, which still stood next door (and which is now part of the Historical Site). The reconstructed house opened in 1923 and eventually passed to the National Park Service as Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in 1963.

We went in. We were immediately greeted by an almost overeager ranger who engaged us in a great deal of conversation just inside the door. We were rescued by an older ranger who explained that the exhibitions on the ground floor were open for viewing, but the rest of the house had to be seen on a free guided tour. We signed up for the 12 noon tour, which started a mere fifteen minutes later.

While we waited, we checked out the collection of TR memorabilia on display in the gallery, which consisted mostly of photographs and engravings accompanied by famous TR quotes.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Margaret Barnhill Roosevelt

There were ten of us on the tour, led by a volunteer who emphasized certain themes about young Theodore Roosevelt’s life that tied to the public figure he would become. First among these was the important influence of women on Roosevelt, both in his childhood and throughout his life. The guide placed special emphasis on Roosevelt’s paternal grandmother, Margaret Barnhill Roosevelt, whose Quaker beliefs influenced TR’s sense of fairness and social reform.

By contrast, Roosevelt’s mother, Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, was a socialite raised on a Georgia plantation who, as Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography, “was entirely ‘unreconstructed’ to the day of her death.” Her brothers were traitors who fought against the United States during the Civil War even as her husband, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., was a charter member of the Union League Club, founded to support the Union cause during the war.

Young Teedy’s tiny velvet chair

Young Theodore was a sickly child plagued by asthma and the family, including brother Elliott and sisters Anna and Corinne, kept him close. Anna and Corinne would provide him counsel and support throughout his life.

TR’s father was a businessman and philanthropist. He was among the founders of some of New York City’s most important charitable and cultural institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History, the New York City Children’s Aid Society, and the New York Children’s Orthopedic Hospital.

Artifacts on public display, such as this letter in TR’s hand, are facsimiles.

In the dining room, we viewed a china set gifted by TR’s niece, Eleanor Roosevelt (Elliott’s daughter).

Our guide emphasized the cosmopolitan milieu of New York City, particularly its founding as a Dutch colony more pluralistic and open to diversity than the Puritan-founded English colonies farther up the Atlantic coast. He also pointed out that iconic New York townhouses, rowhouses, and brownstones are simply American versions of Dutch canal homes typical of Amsterdam.

As the tour neared conclusion, our guide’s narrative shifted from Teedy the sickly boy to TR the burgeoning man who worked to improve his mind through voracious reading and his body and physical health through strenuous exercise.

Tying TR’s narrative back to his father’s philanthropy and his Quaker grandmother’s social justice stance, our guide emphasized Roosevelt’s legacies of economic reform and conservation.

Touché, TR. Image: Sean M. Santos

After getting a few items, including a reproduction of the 1912 Bull Moose Party campaign handkerchief, in the small gift shop, we said farewell to TR’s house and continued up Broadway.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Near the Flatiron Building and in sight of the Empire State Building, we Facetimed my mother to wish her a Happy Birthday.

Then we had to check out the LEGO Store before walking over to the West Village and Stonewall National Monument.

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