Sagamore Hill: Inside the Roosevelt Family Home
Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, lived here at Sagamore Hill from 1885 until his death in 1919. Between 1902 and 1908, it was the nation’s “Summer White House.”
As much as any home in America, it is a reflection of the life and times … the presence and personality … of its “larger-than-life” owner.
Sagamore Hill is Theodore Roosevelt.
Here, Theodore and Edith Roosevelt would live out their 33 years of marriage, in two boisterous, momentous, and event-filled lives.
The Sagamore Hill front hall immediately expresses the spirit and enthusiasm of Theodore Roosevelt, outdoorsman and world traveler. Here is where Roosevelt greeted visitors, as he watched their arrival from his desk in the adjacent library. Originally a sitting room before the house was remodeled in 1905, it became much more as Roosevelt’s career and family grew. The prominent Cape buffalo head over the fireplace is one of Roosevelt’s many hunting trophies in the home from his travels to Africa, Brazil, and throughout North America. The fireplace is where the Roosevelts stored their tennis rackets … tennis balls in blue jugs on the mantelpiece … always ready for a vigorous pickup game. The large rhinoceros statue was given by Roosevelt’s sister … and often hidden with a gardening hat on the horn by a disapproving Edith.
Just off the entry hall, the library doubled as Roosevelt’s personal study and a family gathering place, which daughter Ethel later called “the heart of the home”. In the evenings, TR and Edith would sit before the fire, writing letters or reading aloud to each other and their children. As those children grew, here is where they memorized their poems, songs, and hymns, reciting them for the family. And here was where Roosevelt ran the government of the United States during the summers of 1902 to 1908 -- the first time that executive power was exercised away from Washington, D.C. for extended periods of time. At this desk, Roosevelt dictated letters … received diplomats … met his cabinet members… and, in 1905, arranged the peace conference that ended the war between Russia and Japan. Notable along the library walls are portraits of Roosevelt’s great heroes … his father, Theodore Roosevelt Senior … Ulysses Grant … jurist John Marshall … George Washington … and Abraham Lincoln. The bronzes atop the bookshelves reflect this man’s deep appreciation of fine art … literature … and nature.
Across from the library, Edith kept the formal drawing room as her own private domain and personal office, though the elegant room – filled with antiques inherited from the Roosevelt and Carow families -- often served to welcome TR’s guests and dignitaries. Here, Edith oversaw the family finances – tracking household accounts, paying bills, overseeing investments, and managing a growing farm operation on the estate. She had learned that TR was hopeless with money. “Every morning Edie puts twenty dollars in my pocket, and to save my life I can never tell her afterward what I did with it!” he once confessed to a friend. This sedate sanctuary in a household in constant motion was where Edith relaxed, read and knitted, wrote letters, and took tea with friends. A few exceptions to this air of turn-of-the-century sophistication remain: a blue bowl beneath Edith’s desk was the water dish for family dogs. The mountain lion and brown bear rugs, trophies from her husband. And the polar bear rug a gift from Admiral Robert Peary after his North Pole expedition in 1909.
Down the front hall is the spectacular North Room, a treasure trove of objects and souvenirs from the remarkable life of Theodore Roosevelt. It is the room at Sagamore Hill most evocative of the spirit and dynamism of this amazing American. The North Room was added in 1905, after Edith tired of using her drawing room as a waiting area for TR’s visitors. It’s furnished with an eclectic mix of family furniture, hunting trophies, presidential gifts, and artwork. Immediately in front of you when you enter the North Room is a pair of large ivory elephant tusks given by the Emperor of Abyssinia to Roosevelt. The cavalry saber and hat atop of the elk horns are originals, carried by TR during his “Rough Rider” service in the Spanish-American War. The “Bronco Buster” statue on the mantel was a gift after that war to Colonel Roosevelt from his troopers. The Samurai Warrior on the round table a gift from Admiral Togo, hero of the Russo-Japanese War … the silver loving cup, a present to Edith from sailors on the USS Louisiana in 1907 when TR visited the Panama Canal … the North Room’s carpet, from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Here, amid world treasures and artifacts of world history, the Roosevelts played cards, listened to music, welcomed Christmas … and in moments of great celebration, after rolling up the Sultan’s carpet … they danced.
Meals at Sagamore Hill were formal. Even when dining alone, the family dressed for dinner. Children had to be on time for meals; if they were late, they waited until the family finished … and then ate at a little table in the kitchen. The boys were expected to stand when their parents or any ladies – including their sisters – entered the room. In the dining room, Edith sat at the east end of the table so she could run the meal and communicate with the serving staff, who waited behind the screen. The embroidered screen hiding the pantry door was a gift to Edith from the Empress of Japan. The dining room furniture was purchased by the couple during their honeymoon in Italy in 1887. Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed entertaining. He was a charming, witty, and candid host, encouraging an enthusiastic exchange of ideas. His table guests included a myriad of writers … politicians … even cowboys. Usually the children were included in such dinners. They were expected to display proper manners and to hold up their end of the dinner conversation, where the talk ranged from current events and politics to the latest books and poetry, as well as their daily activities. “Mealtimes at Sagamore Hill were the best education I had,” Ted Junior later remembered.
Mrs. Roosevelt came down to the kitchen every morning to meet with her cook, review menus, and brief the staff on the day’s schedule. During TR’s presidency, breakfasts and dinners usually were limited to the family and close friends. But lunchtimes … well, they could be frantic. On some days, the kitchen staff would provide as many as four sittings for lunch to accommodate children, White House staffers, Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt and their guests, and then the household servants. Edith once wrote her sister that she was lucky to have such good-natured servants because she never knew until the last moment who TR would invite to lunch. Much of Sagamore Hill’s food was produced on the farm. There was an apple orchard and a three-acre vegetable garden that included cherry, peach, and pear trees; a strawberry patch, and a grape arbor. A flock of Rhode Island Red chickens provided eggs and fresh poultry; turkeys and pigs for meat; a small dairy herd for milk and butter. Other supplies arrived from the local Oyster Bay grocer.
Through the 1890s, three rooms on the second floor of Sagamore Hill served as a suite dedicated to the care and housing of a procession of small children. TR and Edith described them as their “bunnies”. He wrote “there was just the proper mixture of freedom and control in the management of the children. They were never allowed to shirk lessons or work; and they were encouraged to have all the fun possible.” The nursery was a work room, where clothes and supplies were stored, babies bathed and dressed, and naps taken. The fanciful drawing of Santa Claus on the nursery wall was a gift to the family from noted illustrator Thomas Nast. Next door, the south bedroom served as the night nursery, where the youngest children slept with their nurse. And the adjacent gate room was a playroom and day nursery, so named because of a wooden gate across the doorway that daughter Ethel remembers kept the children confined “until they could be trusted not to fall down the stairs.” As the Roosevelts’ six children matured, these rooms reverted to family and guest bedrooms. Ethel and her two children returned to Sagamore Hill during World War One while her husband served in France. TR was delighted to have grandchildren so close, earning Ethel’s disapproval when he would interrupt nap time just so he could pick up the youngsters. “I am an excellent baby holder!” TR bragged to his son Archie.
While Theodore and Edith Roosevelt shared this bedroom, their children always called it “Mother’s room”. Edith often spent summer afternoons on the little porch, napping, reading, and writing letters. The expansive view of the lawn and the bay from this porch hardly compensated for its chilly northwest exposure that made it one of the coldest rooms in the house. Its mantle and shelves are filled with family photos and knickknacks that the children gave their mother. The bird’s-eye maple furniture was once TR’s parents’, from their home on West 57th Street in New York City.
The dressing room shares a connecting closet with the Roosevelts’ bedroom, but it was reserved for TR’s use and is definitely … “all-man”. His riding outfit – gloves, boots, and crop – and his heavy cloak used for reviewing U.S. Navy ships are displayed before you. Young Ted Junior remembers how TR, dressing for dinner in this room, took the time to show him a small twenty-two caliber rifle he had purchased to teach the children how to shoot. To Ted Junior’s delight, Roosevelt loaded the gun and fired it into the ceiling. Edith, in the bedroom next-door, claimed to hear nothing.
Guest rooms were reserved for visiting family and friends, and Edith resisted her children’s attempts to take them over. TR’s young niece Eleanor – the future First Lady – stayed in the small guest room during her visits as a child. Most guests who visited Sagamore Hill were honored by the invitation … except one close friend, Henry Cabot Lodge, who complained that those Roosevelts stayed up too late … talked too loud … and got up too early in the morning.
Even after leaving the nursery, the four Roosevelt boys often shared bedrooms. Each of the boys, at one time or another, occupied this room. The contents of the boys’ room reflect their shared interest in sports, games, books, and the outdoors. As the eldest Roosevelt child, Alice Lee Roosevelt always claimed her own room and would not compete with her siblings for space. The bedroom set in Alice’s room once belonged to her mother, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt, who died following her namesake’s birth. The photos on the walls are of the two Alices; the large picture over the desk is a painting of a Spanish princess – some think it a role model for the headstrong “Princess Alice”. Alice married Congressman Nicholas Longworth in 1906 in a storybook White House wedding. Immediately, brother Kermit claimed this room as his own … and insisted that Mother buy new furniture.
The large Roosevelt household required an equally large and capable staff to support and manage the Sagamore Hill operation. Here, on the third floor of the Home, was where many of them lived and worked for the Roosevelts. Through the years, the household staff ranged from four to as many as nine people, including a valet (who doubled as a butler), a lady’s maid, a cook, a nurse, a governess, and a variety of maids. Single females were housed on the third floor; two married couples shared a small farm cottage. Like the other staff rooms on the third floor, Ted’s Room was used as a bedroom by a series of nurses and governess through the 1890s. In 1902, after Quentin started school and no longer needed a governess, 14-year-old Ted Jr. convinced his mother that as the oldest boy, he needed a room of his own. The furnishings reflect the interests of the growing teenager – sports, hunting, photography and books. After Ted married in 1910 and moved out of the house, the “musical chairs” game continued and Archie moved upstairs into his brother’s old room.
Originally designed as a billiard room, this third-floor den served many uses and was dubbed the gun room by Ted Junior because of the hunting equipment stored here. Here, in a fanciful world presided over by TR, the children played and were entranced by ghost stories told in front of the fireplace. It doubled as both a summer study hall for tutoring for one of the boys, and for storage for Edith’s ball gowns. The gun room also provided extra work space for the staff that helped TR write his books; Roosevelt did most of the writing by dictating text to a stenographer, while the desk was used by a typist who transcribed his notes.
Theodore Roosevelt died at Sagamore Hill on January 6, 1919, at age sixty. On the last day of his life, Edith caught him gazing pensively out the window of the gate room. Roosevelt turned to her and said, “I wonder if you know how I love Sagamore Hill.”
Edith lived here for twenty-nine more years, dying in 1948 at age eighty-seven. The Theodore Roosevelt Association bought the Home and its contents and opened it as a museum in 1953. It was transferred to the National Park Service in 1962. It is now maintained as a national historic site, for the benefit of the American people, filled with the same belongings and furnishings it held when the presence of Theodore Roosevelt and his energetic family filled this amazing house…Sagamore Hill.
For Sagamore Hill National Historic Site
Thomas Ross, Superintendent
Sherry Justus, Chief, Interpretation, Visitor Services and Natural Resources
Amy Verone, Curator
Josh Reyes, Park Ranger
Shaun Roche, Park Ranger
Mark Koziol, Museum Technician
In association with the National Conservation Training Center, Shepherdstown, WV
Robert Owens, Producer