At Warm Springs, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States found the strength to resume his political career and a positive outlet for his own personal struggle with polio through creation of the Warm Springs Foundation. Roosevelt returned to use the therapeutic waters at Warm Springs every year, except 1942, from his first visit in 1924 until his death there in 1945. Influenced by his experiences in this rural area, President Roosevelt developed New Deal programs, such as the Rural Electrification Administration. He also carried on important official duties when he was there.
Warm Springs Historic District is adjacent to the small Georgia town that is its namesake. By the late 18th century, settlers came to the area. The population grew with the advancement of the railroad, and by the 1830’s, it was the site of a summer resort and a village. In 1893, Charles Davis constructed the Victorian 300-room Meriwether Inn with resort pools, a dance pavilion, bowling alley, tennis court, and trap shooting. The water flowing from the hillside of Pine Mountain was used to create the resort pools. By the turn of the 20th century, the town of Warm Springs and the resort were in decline.
George Foster Peabody, a prominent businessman and philanthropist in New York, purchased the property in 1923. Peabody shared the story of a young polio victim’s recovery after bathing in the swimming pools at Warm Springs with his friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the young politician paralyzed from the waist down in 1921 from polio. Roosevelt arrived at the resort on October 3, 1924 hoping to find a cure. The next day, he began swimming and immediately felt an improvement. For the first time in three years, he was able to move his right leg. Because Roosevelt was nationally prominent, his visit assured publicity for Warm Springs. A syndicated Sunday newspaper supplement featured his experience. By his return in 1925, other patients were coming in the hope of a cure. In 1926, he bought the resort property and 1,200 acres from George Peabody for some $200,000. Seeking medical advice and contributions from his friends, he organized the nonprofit Warms Springs Foundation in 1927 turning property over to the foundation.
The Warm Springs Foundation created what became the first and for many years, the only hospital devoted solely to the treatment of poliomyelitis victims in the world. The organization became the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, the sponsor of the “March of Dimes,” and was instrumental in promoting the development of a cure for polio. Roosevelt continued for the rest of his life to be actively involved with the foundation, participating in decisions regarding management of the hospital at Warm Springs, including tearing down the old Meriweather Inn to replace it with safer, more accessible buildings for the handicapped.
Although never again able to use his legs fully, by 1928, Roosevelt regained enough physical and emotional strength to return to his great passion, politics. After supporting Al Smith for the presidency at the National Democratic Convention, Roosevelt, at Smith’s behest, accepted the nomination for governor of New York, the position Smith was vacating. Roosevelt narrowly won. This victory set him on his path to the White House. Roosevelt’s success in the governorship brought him overwhelming reelection in 1930 and the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1932. His public obligations from 1929 to 1933 limited his visits to Warm Springs to about a month each year.
As President-elect, during the Depression winter of 1932-33, he went twice to Warm Springs staying in his new house. Finished in 1932, the Little White House is a modest, six room one-story cottage. The wooden building features a four-columned central temple form portico. The slightly off-center entrance hall cuts through the combination living room dining room and opens into Eleanor Roosevelt’s bedroom on the left and into a narrow side hall on the right. The living room/dining room is glassed-in on the west side with high windows flanking French doors that open onto a sundeck. Roosevelt enjoyed the serenity of the sundeck’s view overlooking a heavily wooded ravine.
Roosevelt’s personal secretary used a bedroom off the living room to the right. The two bathrooms are located between the kitchen and the secretary's bedroom and connecting Franklin and Eleanor's bedrooms. The only readily visible adaptations of the house to Roosevelt's infirmity are the flat sills and the raised bathroom fixtures. Some of the furniture is from the Val-Kill workshops.
Even while President Roosevelt fought the Great Depression and led the nation through World War II, he still dedicated time to the Warm Springs Foundation. Frequently, important national figures and cabinet members accompanied Roosevelt to Warm Springs, so he could meet with board trustees while continuing to run the nation and carry out his own personal physical therapy. He met with the patients and shared Thanksgiving Dinner with them in the hospital’s Georgia Hall, whenever he could. FDR claimed that observations in the Warm Springs area inspired certain New Deal programs. He noticed that electric rates were exorbitantly higher in Warm Springs than in Hyde Park. His enthusiasm for the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), which strove to bring electric power to rural areas at reasonable rates, may have begun at Warm Springs. Roosevelt symbolized the connection by signing the REA bill into law at the Little White House.
Roosevelt was only able to go to Warm Springs for infrequent short visits during World War II. He returned to Warm Springs for the last time near the end of the war in March of 1945. Just back from the Yalta Conference, he planned to work on the address with which he would open the United Nations Conference. He also entertained neighbors and conferred with two important guests, Sergio Osmena, the president of the Philippines, to whom he gave assurances of future independence, and Henry Morgenthau, secretary of the treasury. On Thursday, April 12, he planned to attend an afternoon barbecue given by his Warm Springs friends and then a minstrel show at the hospital. That afternoon, Roosevelt seated in a favorite chair near the fireplace, posed for a portrait by Madame Elizabeth Shoumatoff. Suddenly, he suffered a massive stroke. Carried from the room into his bedroom, he died later that same afternoon. The “Unfinished Portrait” is on exhibit at the historic site.
Warm Springs is a place of pilgrimage for many. Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy spoke here during his 1960 race, and in 1976 Jimmy Carter opened his general election campaign in front of the building. The Georgia Warm Springs Foundation granted the property to the State of Georgia. The State created the memorial commission, a self-perpetuating body, opening the Little White House to the public in 1948. In 1980, Roosevelt’s Little White House and Historic Pools and springs became part of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources State Parks and Historic Sites. Presently, Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute, adjacent to the Little White House, is managed by the Department of Labor and is a vocational rehabilitation center treating persons with head, neck, and back injuries, any type of joint or muscle disorder, stroke patients, arthritis, post-polio syndrome and a wide range of birth defects. Today, the Roosevelt’s Little White House remains the same as it was the day the president died.