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Theodore Roosevelt's 'Summer White House' Reopens To The Public


Theodore Roosevelt is revered by environmentalists today as a bold pioneer. As president, he set aside millions of acres of federal land to be preserved. But the house where he lived before and after his presidency wasn't preserved so well. It recently reopened after a three-year restoration. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang went for a visit.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: President Theodore Roosevelt made his name in big cities like New York and Washington, D.C. But he made his home at Sagamore Hill, an 83-acre estate tucked away in the woods of Oyster Bay, N.Y. Martin Christiansen of the National Park Service manages tours here. He says when TR was president, the mansion here was known as the summer White House.

MARTIN CHRISTIANSEN: Because of the telephone, Theodore Roosevelt was able to communicate with the rest of the world and conduct business here, and he was very happy to come home.

WANG: Get out of Washington.


WANG: Roosevelt first moved in before he became president in 1901, and he lived here after serving two terms. He and his second wife, Edith, raised his six children here with a staff of servants.

SUSAN SARNA: This was not a house built to have thousands of dignitaries in it. It was built as a family home, as a farm. This was a working farm. When he became president, he needed something a little bigger.

WANG: Susan Sarna is the curator at Sagamore Hill. She helped oversee the $10 million project to restore the old mansion from its leaking roof to its cracking foundation. Sarna shows me the wood-paneled addition President Roosevelt made to his home's first floor, the North Room.

SARNA: You could stand in that room and tell his entire life story just by looking at the artifacts that he surrounded himself with.

WANG: Like a samurai sword and a bust of Abraham Lincoln, an elephant foot wastepaper basket and a rhino foot inkwell.

SARNA: And in the Gun Room, there was a from hippo foot inkwell.

WANG: So those are real feet..?

SARNA: Yes. Theodore Roosevelt actually did believe that if you're going to kill an animal, you do it for a purpose. It was for studying or for food, and you used every part of the animal.

WANG: Roosevelt was once a sickly boy from a wealthy family. But he was determined to overcome asthma and illness by transforming into a man of the wilderness. He could hold his ground on an African safari and in American politics.

KATHLEEN DALTON: The children weren't supposed to come up here, were they?

SARNA: Right.

DALTON: Right. This is supposed to be a really private writing place because...

WANG: Historian Kathleen Dalton, who wrote a biography of Roosevelt, stops outside the president's old Gun Room on a tour of the third floor. She says this house embodies Roosevelt's legacy as a statesman who pushed the U.S. onto the world stage.

DALTON: Theodore Roosevelt always wanted this to be a public resource. He always wanted the public to have his life as part of their story. So he would be delighted, as he would say, delighted by the beautiful job they've done.

WANG: Melissa Jasinski of Shoreham, N.Y., is also delighted with Roosevelt's restored house. She brought along one of TR's biggest fans - her 9-year-old daughter, Laura.

MELISSA JASINSKI: You know why I think she likes him - because he was feisty, and she's feisty.


JASINSKI: He said what he meant and what he felt, and you do the same thing.

WANG: Is that true?

LAURA: Yeah, it's true.

WANG: Melissa Jasinski says another reason why she likes Roosevelt is because he saved millions of acres of land to turn into national parks and reserves. To see where that president once lived, she says, is priceless.

JASINSKI: To really get into their skin, that's just - you can't replace that because we can't talk to him. We can't interview him, but we can see what his life was like here. And we have to preserve that for the future generations. We have to. It's our history. It's who we are.

WANG: Plenty of visitors have been lining up to see that history up close. On the second day of the new house tours, tickets were sold out before noon. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.