Top Cottage and a longing for Peace

Have you ever longed for a place of your own? A home away from home where you can live the way you want to live and get away from it all? If so, than you have something in common with our 32nd President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The man who brought this country through a Great Depression and a war certainly deserved a place that he could call his own. After all, what we as residents of The Hudson River Valley all know to be called The Home of FDR was in reality not his home at all but in fact belonged to his mother Sara for 41 years.

The big house on the Hudson that he had always returned to time and again had by 1933 become a mad house full of journalists, advisors, relatives, and of course his ever present mother. His open-door policy which allowed all sorts of people to come to his mother’s home for discussions ranging from the political to the satirical had backfired on him by the mid 30’s and he had grown tired of what he called “the mob.” FDR had been planning for years to build a small getaway on top of Dutchess Hill which was one of the highest points in the county. He had driven to the top many times with daydreams of what he might create there. His cousin Daisy Suckley, who also had a family home on the Hudson, had taken many rides with him in his Ford Phaeton convertible to the top of what they secretly called “our hill” and together they made plans for a cottage.

There are only two Presidents who designed and built structures on their estates while serving as President. FDR’s hero Thomas Jefferson had made additions to Monticello and started building Poplar Forest in 1806, and FDR built Top Cottage in 1938. The idea for the cottage was one thing, building it was another. He had already laid out plans with his friend and architect Henry Toombs who had helped him on previous projects, but there were some small issues to deal with. First, the land at the top of the hill did not belong to him, but purchasing land in Hyde Park had never been an issue for FDR and he was able to buy it by 1937 making his family’s holdings well over 1500 acres. Next, came the cost of building which would be rather more than he had expected.

He had planned to build his home for just about $16,000. However it would cost him more than $18,000 which included the contractors, plumbing, plasterwork, furnace, and of course the electric. He tried to save money where he could by using the fieldstone and local materials that were already available on his estate. He also used his own trees as poles for electric lines that ran up the hill from the main road. He used borrowed furniture instead of brand new pieces to fill and make it comfortable. He never had a phone line installed, this might have saved him a few bucks, sure, but he also didn’t want to be disturbed when he was enjoying what we now call “me time.”

The cottage was completed in 1939 and was the first home built by and for a disabled person. Many visitors made their way up the hill with FDR in his sports car including the King and Queen of Great Britain, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Princess Martha of Norway, Queen Wilhemina and Princess Juliana of the Netherlands. His confidante and cousin Daisy would tag along and listened to him as he “talked mostly about his hopes for future peace,” so would his secretary Missy LeHand. While both women had hopes of sharing the cottage with the President, and Hollywood would like you to think that they did in the Bill Murray film Hyde Park on Hudson, their hopes and a film maker’s fantasy would never come to pass. FDR’s home away from home would never be lived in by him or any of his friends. He died long before he was ready to retire and use the house on a regular basis. When he died in April of 1945, his son Elliott moved in with his wife Faye Emerson. The house was sold by 1952 and it wasn’t until 2001 when it opened to visitors as a National Historic Site.

One must see the cottage to understand how FDR felt about it and how it did give him some kind of peace, be it ever so slight. It is hard to properly express in words how such a lovely little place with intriguing views of the valley could make one feel let alone the President of the United States. But it could be infectious once you journey to the top of the hill and sit on his porch, you may want to go out and follow your dreams of building a home away from home too. You can visit it by shuttle bus from the Henry Wallace Visitor Center in Hyde Park three times a day, May through October. The shuttle bus departs from the visitor center at 11:10, 1:10, and 3:10. Or if you are feeling extra hearty you can hike up the hill from the mile long trail that begins at Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, and goes up to the top of the hill.

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  • Blog Author

    Shannon Butler

    Shannon Butler is a Park Ranger of Interpretation and Education at Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Site in Hyde Park New York. She has also interpreted the Senate House State Historic Site in Kingston New York. Read Full
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