A Memorial to Theodore
On November 30, 1919, the Woman's Roosevelt Memorial Association paid off the $25,043.63 mortgage on 28 E. 20th Street, thereby acquiring ownership of Theodore Roosevelt's birthplace, as well as the adjoining 26 E. 20th St. property that was once owned by Theodore's uncle, Robert Roosevelt. This transaction completed the first step in a long process of restoring and renovating the late president's childhood home into a memorial. However, 28 an 26 E. 20th Street in 1919 was a much different place than it had been when Theodore was born there in 1858.
With the evolution of the Gramercy area into an increasingly commercial district in the mid-late 19th century, the Roosevelts decided to move uptown to 6 W. 57th Street in 1873. By 1898, the once neo-gothic brownstones of 20th Street had been transformed into storefronts. While celebrating TR's 47th birthday in 1905, the Roosevelt Home Club decided to buy 28 E. 20th Street, in hopes of preserving its initial structure from further renovations and maintaining the site as a National Landmark. However, in 1916, the group let go of the building, and it was then transformed into a two-story café. Roosevelt declined the opportunity to preserve the mantelpieces or any other part of the house before its demolition.
In 1919, shortly after TR's death, the Women's Roosevelt Memorial Association purchased the 20th street properties and established very specific plans for the buildings' restorations. 28 E. 20th Street was to be a meticulous reproduction of Roosevelt's home as it was in his childhood, complete with family portraits, original furniture, and other Roosevelt heirlooms. Any original pieces that could not be salvaged were to be reproduced exactly. The 26 E. 20th Street home would be renovated into a museum and a library, holding influential works in addition Theodore's own writings. The fourth and fifth floors of both buildings would hold auditoriums where New York school children could attend assemblies on the history of the country and the state, as well as the life and work of the Theodore Roosevelt. The Women's Roosevelt Memorial Association wanted to transform the buildings into more than just museums; they wanted to create an interactive experience to promote the principles that helped shape Theodore's strong character.
On January 6, 1921, the second anniversary of Theodore's death, General Leonard Wood, former commander of the Rough Riders, laid the cornerstone of the Roosevelt House, officially marking the renovation commencement. The memorial was formally opened to the public on October 27, 1923, which would have been Theodore's 65th birthday. Three hundred people attended the opening ceremony inside the newly restored house. Tributes were made from General Wood, President Calvin Coolidge, James Garfield, Secretary of the Interior in the Roosevelt Cabinet; Governor Pinchot of Pennsylvania, Chief Forester during the Roosevelt presidency; and Theodore Roosevelt, TR's eldest son.
As articulated by the Woman's Roosevelt Memorial Association, the Roosevelt house was to be a living testament to the president's great American spirit; "a place where his voice may, year after year, be clearly and strongly heard". The association hoped the late president's former home would promulgate Theodore's ideals of courage, fairness, service, and perseverance, especially to the country's youth. The memorial would be national center for Americanization and an inspiration of greatness for generations to come.