NYSD House

Big Old Houses: Know Your Roosevelts

Know Your Roosevelts
by John Foreman


It's as well known that FDR and his wife were cousins, as it is that Geico can save you 15% on car insurance. But "cousins?" How did that work? Claes Martenszan van Rosenwelt (1626-1659) looks to me like "Roosevelt Zero," the man from whose loins sprang Nicholas (1658-1742), who begat Johannes and Jacobus, respective founders of the so-called "Oyster Bay" and "Hyde Park" branches of the Roosevelt clan. Ancient Claes was Oyster Bay Eleanor's great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. He was Hyde Park Franklin's great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. That's six "greats" to five. In other words, I'm probably more closely related to Vladimir Putin than Franklin was to Eleanor.

Much clearer is the cousinship of John (Jack) Ellis Roosevelt (1853-1939) and President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). Their fathers were brothers. Jack Roosevelt — lawyer, coal company exec, and personal advisor to "Teedie," as the family called his presidential cousin — was the proprietor of a Sayville, Long Island country place called Meadow Croft. It is seen above in the early 1970s, at about the time his daughter Jean suggested the Sayville Fire Department burn it down for a training exercise. The view below shows it today, reborn through the efforts of the Bayport Heritage Association.
Like Roosevelts everywhere, the Sayville clan was a sporty bunch — sailing, bathing, motoring, canoeing, you name it. That's Mr. R, happy at the tiller of his boat on the Great South Bay, looking remarkably like the last czar of Russia. Compared to his children and their friends, his idea of beach wear was conservative — a lightweight suit, an informal tie, topped off by what I'm guessing was his favorite style of country cap.
Here is Mrs. Roosevelt, nee Nannie Vance, daughter of a New York politician (and briefly acting NYC mayor) named Samuel H.B. Vance. I'm guessing this was a wedding portrait. The poor woman couldn't have spent much time in that corset before passing out.
Jack R's father, Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, having bought 215 acres in Sayville in 1873, developed an estate there called Lotus Lake. Jack's brother Robert Jr. subsequently built a house on the paternal spread and called it the Lilacs. In 1890, Jack followed suit, buying a balloon frame center hall colonial farmhouse of exceeding modesty, built in 1867 for a retired sea dog named Captain Woodward. The house was entirely inadequate, but that could be fixed. Besides proximity to his father's estate, the decision to buy was probably influenced by the sudden galloping fashion then descending upon little Sayville.
It is curiously asserted hereabouts that the south shore villages of Oakdale, Sayville and Bayport were Long Island's original (and somehow its more authentic) "gold coast." In this view of the Universe, the north shore, even Newport itself, were social copycats. This ignores the fact that social Newport significantly predates the Sayville area, and Long Island's famous north shore — that great glittering rectangle from Great Neck to Centerport and Syosset to Manhasset — not only developed at the same time as the south shore, but was at least twenty times as big.
Part of this confusion stems from the presence of a famous club, gone now for over forty years. I'd be surprised if even a handful of my readers has ever heard of the South Side Sportsman Club at Oakdale. South Side started as a rustic tavern in the wilderness beloved by shooting congnoscenti. It evolved, somewhat unexpectedly, into one of the most exclusive millionaires' clubs in America.

Officially chartered in 1886 it dedicated itself to the preservation of the natural world and the pleasures of the rich. In the process, it transformed several unpretentious adjacent villages into destination addresses for upscale country houses. Between the late 1880s and '90s, three really grand ones — Commodore Bourne's Indian Neck Hall, Willie Vanderbilt's Idle Hour and Bayard Cutting's Westbrook — rose amongst the fields and marshes in close proximity to the club. Each in its way was the equal of just about any other house anywhere in the country. However, there were only three of them.
OK, OK, there were lots of other nice places, and some were pretty big. Most, however, tended to be on the scale of Jack Roosevelt's Meadow Croft. The Sayville of the past reminds me of the Millbrook of the present, where I live now. It's really nice, but it's also really small. South Side at its peak in 1907 had thousands of protected acres, an Isaac H. Green designed clubhouse annex, a private railroad platform, a big rep and all of 100 members. It folded in 1973. Now called the Connetquot River State Park, the old millionaires' club has become an enormous wooded island in a sea of suburban houses. The village of Sayville retains an unpretentious charm, but the former rural graciousness of its surrounding countryside is gone.
In 1974, Suffolk County had the good sense to buy Meadow Croft on 64 of the Roosevelt family's original 250 acres. Meadow Croft is now part of the romantically named Sans Souci Lake Nature Preserve, a three mile long finger of unspoilt greenery separating Sayville from neighboring Bayport. "Integrity of site" is a figure of speech in the "Preservoid" dialect of the English language. It refers to historic structures whose immediate surroundings (including view lines) haven't been ruined by parking ramps, garden apartments, expressways, sewage treatment plants ... (let me see; what else have I seen?) ... ah yes, hideous modern additions, nearby airports, high tension lines, etc., etc.

More remarkable, frankly, than the Roosevelt house itself is the sense one has at Meadow Croft of being literally transported to old Sayville's world of narrow lanes, tall waving grasses, rambling summer houses, big lawns and quiet woods, "quiet" being one of the modern world's rarest luxuries.
The Roosevelts dealt with Capt. Woodward's deficient farm house by hiring a prominent local architect named Isaac Henry Green (1859-1937) to double its size. This was completed in 1892. Green was the man who designed South Side's shingle style Annex, numerous houses for local gentry as far out as the Hamptons, a dozen local churches, and the farm complexes, if not the main houses, on the aforementioned Vanderbilt, Cutting and Bourne estates.

Green gave Jack Roosevelt a competent Colonial Revival addition, better seen in the images above. It is really an entirely new house, grafted onto the southern wall of the Woodward original. The practice of preserving a useable pre-existing structure within a newer, larger and more fashionable envelope was quite common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I live in one of these hybrids myself. Although buried in utilitarian enlargements, Meadow Croft's old wing is easily discernible in the image below.
Today's patient guide is Jerry McClusky, a man who has his facts straight and a sense of humor. The before and after views below illustrate a vintage front hall in which nothing seems to have been changed. Look again and you'll see that's not the case at all. Those aren't really the same chairs, nor is that the same rug on the floor, or clock on the wall, or table by the door, or anything else. And yet, the coup d'oeil is one of time capsule authenticity. Recreating the past from old photos must have been a lot of fun.
The drawing room on the west side of the Green addition is an example of similar (if not quite so striking) efforts. The original piano and several of the wicker chairs were donated back to the house by Roosevelt family members.
The dining room is on the other side of the hall. The table is original, the adjacent serving pantry wonderfully intact. A rope and pulley trunk elevator is tucked in a hall outside.
The door on the north wall of the serving pantry used to be the front door to the old sea captain's house. The original plan of that house, interesting to note, wasn't all that different from Green's stylish front addition. The Roosevelts combined the captain's parlor with a contiguous room in back to make a new library. The long white coats are dusters, obligatory motor wear for auto travel in the unpaved past.
The view below looks from the library to Capt. Woodward's former front door. Instead of being thrown out and replaced, the old door has survived as one of Meadow Crofts many small charms. The captain's dining room was across the hall from the parlor, much as the Roosevelts' is in the new wing. Mr. R was a tinkerer who converted this room into a country workshop.
The captain's kitchen occupied a one-story extension on the back of his house. Indeed, it's still there, buried now in subsequent additions. The direct route from the new dining room leads through the pantry, past the main stair of the old house (re-purposed as a back stair), and ends at an appealing country kitchen whose distant location is redeemed (assuming you're not the one hauling platters of meat) by architectural whimsey. Somebody at Bayport Heritage decided 1910 was a Roosevelt family high water mark, and Meadow Croft's interiors have been interpreted accordingly. Stove, ice box, and ice chest are all Rooseveltian; the rest of the kitchen is stuffed with things — many of whose uses are extremely obscure — you'd need if you were a cook in 1910.
A door on the south wall of the kitchen leads to a small servants' dining room, which in turn connects to Mr. Roosevelt's workshop. It probably used to be a pantry.
A door on the north wall of the kitchen leads to the laundry room.
So much for the main floor of this friendly old vacation house near the sea. Let's retrace our steps to the front hall and climb to 2.
A door on the right at the top of the stairs leads to the owners' suite, not planned with a lot of sophistication perhaps, but including most of the requisite rooms. The first was used as a nursery, then probably as a boudoir. Now it's been "interpreted" (a bit confusingly) as another library. From the windows of the adjoining bedroom, used today as a conference room, I am told you once could see the Great South Bay. Meadow Croft is full of terrific old restored bathrooms, but the one off the owners' bedroom is not one of them.
The Roosevelts' three girls shared two bedrooms on the other side of the main stairs. The hall bath serving both, plus the owners' bath seen above, were literally hung onto the side of the house in 1909. Each is clearly visible from the lawn outside. A pair of guest rooms and a guest bath are located several steps down, on the second floor of the Woodward house.
Here's Mr. Roosevelt in 1913, aged 60, looking rather more careworn than he did in that candid on the bay. In 1912, his wife of 33 years died of typhoid fever. Soon after, he met a 29-year-old widow named Edith Hammersley at a Sayville house party hosted by his brother. They took walks, they motored through the countryside, they had long talks. "I asked her if she cared for me," he recounted later, "and she said she did." They married; bad idea. "J. Roosevelt Weeps in Accusing Wife," exclaimed a headline in the New York Times on February 15, 1916, which continued, "I've Been an Ass, Husband Tells Court in Annulment Suit." According to Mrs. R., her husband "made her life unbearable by his exactions ... (He) always wanted his own way."

Hmmmm. The annulment was granted in 1916. The room and (unrenovated) en suite bath below, located on the second floor of the old house facing the guestrooms, was Mr. R's dressing room. He relocated here when daughter Jean visited with her family. (Jean, like cousin Eleanor, also married a man named Roosevelt).
Five maids' rooms, located above the kitchen and the laundry room, occupy an extension of the second floor. Some are interpreted, others are full of storage.
Let's return the way we came, past the old staircase and up the new, to the third floor where there are two more guest rooms and still no water view.
I discovered Meadow Croft quite by accident last September, en route from Oakdale, where I'd been photographing the Cutting house, to my sister's at Cutchoque. It took a long time to get inside (why so hard? I dunno), but I'm glad I finally did. The link is www.bayportheritage.org.
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