Franklin D. Roosevelt built Top Cottage for use as a private retreat where, after his presidency, he could write his memoirs and history. But world events intervened. FDR was re-elected for an unprecedented third and fourth term during a period of intense international crisis. The simplicity of Top Cottage belies its significance as a gathering place for the Roosevelts, world leaders, royalty, and the president's administration who convened in this restful setting to witness a world disintegrating into war and imagine a future with nations united in peace.
History of the BuildingFDR began purchasing the property on which he would eventually build Top Cottage in June of 1935. Later that year he was discussing plans for its construction with his sixth cousin and close companion Margaret "Daisy" Suckley. Together, they refined and developed the concept for a simple and modest two-bedroom house over the next few years. By 1938, FDR had assembled a parcel of land that included the wooded hilltop plateau for the cottage as well as some buffers to the south and east to protect the serene setting. Architect Henry Toombs, with whom FDR had collaborated on earlier projects (including the Little White House at Warm Springs and Val-Kill Cottage), prepared the detailed construction drawings and specifications. Construction began later that summer and concluded in June 1939.
The Architecture and FurnishingsTop Cottage recalls the massing, materials, and simple detailing of Dutch colonial architecture of the Hudson Valley. The house is a one-and-one-half story, random-coursed fieldstone building with steeply pitched gable roofs. The west facade of the house extends in a concave pitch over an open, full-width porch.
The primary interior space is the living room, which occupies the entire first floor of the central block and is organized around a large stone fireplace. FDR furnished the room with the things that reflected his interests, family history, and his long public career and presidency, including replicas of furniture owned by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. Framed prints documented the scenic beauty of the Hudson Valley and American political traditions. The room feels spacious, with a plastered cathedral ceiling, four large windows, and sliding glass doors that open onto the porch, allowing views out into the wooded landscape and the Hudson River Valley in the distance.
Accommodating FDR's DisabilityFDR's plan for Top Cottage eliminated a number of mobility barriers traditionally present in residences of the period. With its primary spaces on a single floor and its ground-level exterior entries, the cottage plan accommodated the president's wheelchair. Once over the small lip at the entries, FDR could move freely from room to room in his wheelchair and onto the expansive porch. An earthen ramp, believed to be original to the house, provides access between the porch and the lawn.
A Retreat for Allies During Turbulent TimesRoosevelt's use of Top Cottage as the setting for the final event in the carefully organized royal visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939 is typical of how the Roosevelts employed personal space to foster relationships with world leaders and Washington colleagues. FDR's well-documented personal style of governing softened distinctions between official state business and social entertainments. Hosting the royal couple not only strengthened the relationship between FDR and George VI, but also the relationship between the United States and Britain, a relationship which would be instrumental in fighting the world-wide threat of fascism.
Following the very public opening of Top Cottage with the royal picnic of 1939, FDR's use of the cottage took on a decidedly more private character. Numerous visits by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American military officers and ambassadors, and European royal families in exile transpired here without the audience gathered to witness the king and queen's visit. Subsequent visits to Top Cottage from other government officials and international personalities, included Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Crown Princess Louise of Sweden, Queen Wilhelmina and Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, Princess Martha of Norway, and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King.