A Scholarly New Deal

Extraordinary accomplishments of FDR's presidency inspire students at Hunter College's Public Policy Institute, TT just opened in newly renovated Roosevelt House.

The stately Manhattan townhouse that incubated Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal -- the home that also witnessed the tragedy of his paralyzing bout with polio and the triumph of his election as president -- is being reborn this fall as Hunter College's new Public Policy Institute. With high-powered visiting scholars teaming up with an interdisciplinary faculty, graduate students and undergraduates, the institute intends to deepen scholarship about how government, nongovernmental organizations and individuals can shape governmental policies. The first public policy students begin studying there this fall, while those pursuing human rights will start in the spring. They can choose either an undergraduate minor or a certificate program in each field.

Jennifer Raab Hunter College president Jennifer Raab inspects the refurbished
Roosevelt House library; at left, the stately townhouse exterior today.

The institute enhances the various strands of public policy initiatives, including master's-level programs, at a number of colleges within the University.

Roosevelt HouseThis is the third incarnation for the brick-and-limestone townhouse on East 65th Street. From 1908 until 1942, it was the New York City residence of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, arguably the most influential couple to lead the nation. And from 1942 until 1992, it was Hunter College's interfaith center for students -- the nation's first collegiate meeting place for students of different religions, ethnicities and interests.

As New York City's landmarks commissioner before becoming Hunter's president in 2001, Jennifer Raab knew about "this amazing house with an incredible legacy as home of one of the most important presidents and first ladies. It had been closed and was in dilapidated, rundown condition." Restoring the home and using it to study the "public issues that were part of the Roosevelt legacy" was one of her top priorities and Chancellor Matthew Goldstein gave his full support.

Raab sought public and private funds both to enhance the building and to devise a scholarly program for it. As part of that effort, CUNY secured a state allocation. As Iris Weinshall, the University's vice chancellor for facilities planning, construction and management, put it, "We spent every nickel." She added that renowned architect James Polshek "grasped the essence of the historic nature of the building, but added in the modern elements and amenities that make this a building that can be used in the 21st century."

The thought of locating a public policy institute in the building grew naturally from the interests of its original residents.

No president save Lincoln faced a greater challenge than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Elected four times, he experimented with policies that transformed government as he battled the Great Depression and World War II. His lasting innovations are as diverse as Social Security, federal bank-deposit insurance and electrification of rural areas.

No first lady has been as influential as Eleanor Roosevelt. She traveled the country and the world, serving as Franklin's eyes and ears, wrote a daily newspaper column read by millions from 1935 to 1962 and chaired the panel that in 1948 drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the nascent United Nations. Its early sessions -- with her as a U.S. delegate -- took place at Hunter's Bronx campus (now Lehman College).

No president's mother did more for civil rights than Sara Delano Roosevelt, who in 1924 -- when racial separation was widespread -- hosted a luncheon at the house that Eleanor had organized for the National Council of Women. There Sara befriended Mary McLeod Bethune, daughter of slaves; she later raised funds for the traditionally black school that Bethune founded, Bethune-Cookman College.

Sara built the six-story townhouse as a gift to her only child, Franklin, and his bride and distant cousin, Eleanor, in 1908, three years after their marriage.

Actually, Sara gave them half the townhouse, for she lived in the other half -- and felt free to walk through connections on several floors. She had easy access to her grandchildren, but, Eleanor wrote, "You were never quite sure when she would appear, day or night."

The living arrangements strained relations between mother- and daughter-in-law. Eleanor recalled telling Franklin that she "did not like to live in a house which was not in any way mine, one that I had done nothing about and which did not represent the way I wanted to live." The houses at 47 (Sara) and 49 (Franklin and Eleanor) E. 65th St., between Madison and Park Avenues, share a stately facade and a single entrance. Inside, steps lead to separate doors of the mirror-image houses.

This was Franklin's New York City base, birthplace of some of their six children and scene of illness, defeat and victory.

In 1912, Franklin, then a state senator from Dutchess County, and Eleanor recovered from typhoid fever in the house. Franklin returned after his failed 1920 run for vice president. In 1921, in a third-floor room overlooking the rear garden, he recuperated from polio, which paralyzed his legs.

But at 49 he also engineered his return to public life, starting with a riveting speech nominating Al Smith for president at the 1924 Democratic convention at Madison Square Garden. He won two terms as New York governor, in 1928 and 1930. And early in the morning of Nov. 9, 1932, he accepted President Herbert Hoover's concession telegram after crushing him in an electoral landslide.

Later that day in his drawing room, Roosevelt thanked a national radio audience for "this great vote of confidence and their approval of a well conceived and actively directed plan for economic recovery." Until he took office in March, the townhouse incubated his brain trust's plans for economic recovery, the public policy initiatives known as the New Deal.

Franklin and Eleanor returned only sporadically during the more than 12 years they lived in the White House. Eleanor took a small apartment in Greenwich Village as a get-away until 1941, when she returned to 49 E. 65th St. to care for her ailing mother-in-law. Sara died at their Hyde Park estate two weeks before her 87th birthday and three months before the United States entered World War II.

Fall Events at Roosevelt House

Following is a sampling of upcoming events scheduled at Roosevelt House. For details, and for others, go to www.roosevelthouse.hunter.cuny.edu

  • Book Discussions Nov. 2: Hazel Rowley, Franklin and Eleanor: An Extra-ordinary Marriage (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, November, 2010)
  • Dec. 16: Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt (Random House, 2010), the final book in his biographical trilogy Date to Be Announced: Mark Lachs, M.D., Treat Me, Not My Age: How to Stay Healthy and Get Good Care as You or a Loved One Ages (2010)" Cosponsored with the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging and Longevity. Lectures and Panel Discussions
  • Oct. 13: Election Insurrection: What to Expect in the Midterm Elections -- 2010 Moderator: Dan Abrams. Cosponsored with The Common Good.
  • Oct. 26: Conversations in Human Rights and International Justice: An Evening with Luis Moreno Ocampo, first chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Moderator: Jonathan Fanton.
  • Ongoing Exhibition: "Picturing Policy: Reimagining Policy in the New Deal" curated by Rickie Solinger, uses WPA-era photographs to illustrate how New Deal programs improved ordinary Americans' lives.

By the following spring, Eleanor had emptied the townhouses and moved into a new apartment at 29 Washington Square West. The building went on the market for $60,000.

Four months later, Hunter president George N. Shuster asked FDR if he would sell the building for what became the Sara Delano Roosevelt Interfaith House, the nation's first collegiate interreligious center. Roosevelt was so excited that he lowered the price to $50,000 (about $669,000 in today's money) and kicked in $1,000 himself. Shuster raised the rest through Catholic, Jewish and Protestant individuals and groups.

Roosevelt family FDR with his mother, Sarah,
left, and wife, Eleanor, in 1920,
when he was Democratic nominee
for vice president

The Roosevelts had early ties to Hunter. The New Deal helped finance construction of Hunter's Bronx campus in the 1930s and the North Building on Park Avenue, which Franklin dedicated in 1940. (Roosevelt's programs also built Brooklyn College.) For more than 40 years, Eleanor often visited Hunter, then a women's college, usually informally, and invited students into her home. At the dedication of Interfaith House in November 1943, Eleanor said that Franklin saw it as "the finest memorial" to his mother.

Interfaith House became home to some 120 extracurricular organizations, including religious groups like Hillel and the Newman Club, as well as sororities and clubs like the Toussaint L'Ouverture Society for the Study of African-American History and Culture. (Hunter College admitted its first black students in 1873, just a few years after it opened.) The house remained popular, but by 1992 disrepair forced Hunter to close it.

Hunter College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History published a rich history of the house, Roosevelt House at Hunter College by Deborah S. Gardner.

Restoring Roosevelt House was complicated because its exterior and parts of the interior were landmarked. "Elements could be cleaned, but had to go back into the house," which was gutted, vice chancellor Weinshall said.

Another reason was that it was landlocked, hemmed in by other buildings and backyards, making it impossible to use heavy construction equipment. And because the house fronts on a through street that doesn't allow parking, the University could not store material or a dumpster on the roadway. So shovelful by shovelful, workers carried dirt and debris out the front door and around the corner, where trucks could briefly park on high-traffic Park Avenue. There was a great deal of dirt, for architect James Polshek had designed a ground-floor, 115-seat auditorium that extends into what had been the backyard.

With the graceful banisters now once again agleam, Hunter's Public Policy Institute began its work in mid-2010, when two visiting scholars took up residence in apartments carved out of former servants' quarters on the sixth floor.

John McDonough, the inaugural Joan H. Tisch Distinguished Fellow in Public Health, played a key role in shaping health-care reform both in Massachusetts and nationally as Sen. Ted Kennedy's senior health care adviser. At Roosevelt House, he has taught a health policy class to 40 master's students in public health and nursing and conducted an interdisciplinary seminar for faculty from nursing, public health and social work programs, as well as the CUNY Graduate Center.

"We're also organizing public engagement that connects the legacy of FDR with health reform, and we're thinking about the new federal law and the opportunities it presents," he said. Jonathan Fanton, the inaugural Franklin Delano Roosevelt Visiting Fellow, was president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and is a board member of Human Rights Watch. Besides helping to develop Hunter's human rights program, he has invited speakers to meet with faculty and students, including two U.N. war crimes prosecutors, a presidential special envoy to Sudan, the co-chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, a U.N. assistant secretary-general focusing on the emerging concept of a "responsibility to protect" communities from genocide and war crimes, and the U.N.'s special advisor for the prevention of genocide.

Fanton said his guests invariably want to tour Roosevelt House, for "every room has a piece of history that's inspiring, which I hope will call forth all who work here to think about the high ideals that the Roosevelts set for us and for the world."