More than a century ago, newlyweds Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor moved into a townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, under the watchful eye of his mother. Sara Delano Roosevelt had overseen the design and construction of the double townhouse and only a few interior doors and passageways separated her home from her son and daughter-in-law’s. Today, the brownstone that housed one of the nation’s most beloved presidential families has has transformed into a modern center for public policy and education at City University of New York’s Hunter College.
Living on East 65th Street between Park and Madison avenues for more than three decades, the Roosevelts became involved with Hunter College, whose campus is just a few blocks away. Eleanor spoke at a number of the college’s events and Franklin dedicated the WPA-funded Hunter building when it opened in 1940. After Sara died in 1941, the double townhouse went up for sale. A nonprofit association representing Hunter College’s student groups bought the building.
For nearly 50 years the Roosevelt House was used as a student center, hosting Hunter’s student government and various academic and social events. Eventually the building fell into such disrepair that the college closed the doors for a massive renovation. The home reopened in 2010 as the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, which houses Hunter College staff offices, classrooms and a spacious auditorium.
On Mar. 14 and 15, a cross section of political and academic heavy hitters gathered for the two-day 2012 Presidential Leadership Symposium, which focused on President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society of the mid-1960s and the various policies enacted under it. Panelists discussed social services, health care, education and civil rights and questioned the federal government’s proper roles and responsibilities in these areas. How large or small the government’s role should be is a constant debate in the upcoming presidential election.
Among the panelists who spoke throughout event were presidential historian Michael Beschloss, LBJ’s chief domestic adviser Joseph A. Califano, Jr., former New York education commissioner David Steiner, and civil rights activist and Georgia Congressman John Lewis.
Holding the symposium at the Roosevelt House nodded to President Johnson’s reverence for FDR and his New Deal, which he considered a benchmark to aspire to when drafting his own policies decades later. The symposium and its venue both echoed the evolution of structures and ideas born deep in the past that remain just as important today.
The Roosevelt House will be featured on THIRTEEN this summer in Treasures of New York: Roosevelt House.