The Brownstone Townhouse of Theodore Roosevelt

A sketch of the original brownstone of Theodore Roosevelt's family, circa 1865
This sketch shows a portrayal of 20th Street as it looked around 1865. To the right stand the original brownstone of Theodore Roosevelt and the home of his uncle Robert next door.

Theodore Roosevelt's grandfather, Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt grew very wealthy from his successful plate glass importing business, Roosevelt and Son, located on Maiden Lane. In the 1830s, he moved his family uptown to Union Square and built a mansion at Broadway on a property which extended from 13th to 14th Street. This followed the trend of other prominent New Yorkers, who pushed northward and established themselves in fashionable residential areas at what was then the outskirts of the growing city.

Cornelius was so wealthy that he purchased houses as wedding presents for each of his five sons when they married. He gifted two neighboring brownstone townhouses on East 20th Street as wedding presents to his two youngest sons. In 1854, Theodore, Sr.and his wife, Martha Bulloch (or "Mittie" as she was nicknamed) moved into No. 28, where the future president Theodore Roosevelt was born. Right next door at No. 26 lived Theodore's uncle Robert Barnwell with his wife "Lizzie" Ellis.

26 and 28 East 20th Street circa 1900
The homes of TR's family and the neighboring home of uncle Robert has been converted into stores with bay windows. Busy commerce has replaced quiet residences.

The "brownstones" which lined the wealthy neighborhood referred to both the prized architectural style and building material. The Romantic movement of the early to mid-1800s, expressed by Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, advocated a return to nature in architecture where buildings would copy nature. Brownstone, or brownsandstone, was found suitable, with its warm color and ease of carving. Its availability in Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey allowed for easy transportation via water and rail. At the same time, there was less land available as the population grew, favoring "row houses" which were attached to their neighbors, sharing common walls.

The simple exterior of brownstones clashed with the decorative interiors of the Victorian era of 1837 to 1901, although the wealthy adopted the long rows of identical houses. Some rejected this style, such as Edith Wharton, a contemporary of TR, who lived not far from No. 28 in a similar brownstone in Gramercy Park. Wharton expresses in Age of Innocence her skepticism of the uniformity of New York society in its architecture. The layouts of brownstones followed a pattern. They had a tall stoop which led to a front door that opened on the second floor into a long narrow hall, with a parlor in the front and a dining room at the rear, the bedrooms upstairs, and the kitchens and servant quarters in the ground floor basement, which had its own servants' entrance. The brownstone of Theodore Roosevelt's family had this layout.

Tall office building is constructed next to 26 and 28 East 20th Street.
The original houses have been converted into stores with bay windows. Notice the neighboring house to the left that has been demolished and replaced with a tall office building.

By the late 1800s, brownstones were going out of fashion and a commercial tide arrived in the neighborhood of the Roosevelt family. In 1873, following the continual trend of northward migration, Theodore Sr. moved his family to a mansion at No. 6 West 57th Street, just below Central Park and next door to Theodore Roosevelt's uncle James. Theodore was fourteen years old. The brownstone where Theodore Roosevelt was born on 20th St. was sold. At first, bay windows were added to the five-story brownstone when it became a store in 1896; it was then completely demolished to make way for a two-story retail structure in 1916.

Three years later, Theodore Roosevelt died and his family bought the store and the uncle's original brownstone next door. They rebuilt the sites into a replica of Theodore Roosevelt's birthplace circa 1865, with five period rooms, two exhibit galleries, and an auditorium. It opened in 1923 as "The Roosevelt House." It was privately run by the Women's Roosevelt Memorial Association (WRMA) until 1962, when it became a Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site (NHS), administered by the National Park Service.

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Image of 26 and 28 E. 20th st.
Underwood & Underwood photo of workers constructing the museum (1921).
image of Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in 1923
1923 image of Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site

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