Sagamore Hill: Old Home As Good As New

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Sarna and Foote
Museum curator Susan Sarna and James Foote, TR impersonator
(Photo by Jill Nossa)

Sagamore Hill is set to reopen this weekend following an extensive rehabilitation that took seven years to complete. The former home of President Theodore Roosevelt is now in pristine condition and ready for public tours. The event will be marked with a celebration on Sunday, July 12.

“This project started in 2008,” said Susan Sarna, the project manager and curator of Sagamore Hill. “It was 1996 when we put in a request for the funds. We finally got funded in 2008. It took us three or four years of doing nothing but studies. We had studies done on everything, from the roof to the foundation, to the HVAC system and lighting. During that time period, we realized the initial money we put it in for—$4 million—was not even close to adequate because the problems were so intense. We realized the leaking roof had damaged the siding, the siding then damaged the windows, the windows damaged the plaster, the plaster damaged the floor. In order to fix the first problem—the roof—we needed to fix every single thing. And then we realized we needed to replace all of the electric, we needed to upgrade the alarm system and rewire the entire alarm system, we needed a new heating system and a new HVAC system. So, what started as a $4 million project ballooned to an $8.5 million project. During all of this we realized we had 12,000 objects in the house that could not stay during the project. It was too intensified, and we had too many things going on.”

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TR’s home is adorned with mounted animal heads.

Items were stored at U.S. Art, Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, PA, and at Old Orchard, Theodore Roosevelt Jr.’s house next door. Other items were on loan to Walt Disney World, the National Rifle Association and the Smithsonian during the restoration. Sarna said she had spread sheets on every object and spent three years having everything conserved before packing it up to store.

Visitors may notice a difference when touring the home. The changes are subtle, as the home has always been kept historically accurate and every object is in the exact location it has been during the museum’s existence. Sarna said that one of the things that has been changed is the lighting: the house is now better lit, though in a way that keeps its original gaslight level.

“We spent about a year going through the house and studying how the light was coming through the house,” said Sarna.

TR's library

She said the windows have ultra­violet filters and the lighting is kept low so as not to damage the objects in the house.

Another more noticeable change is outside, as the pathway from the parking lot to the house is longer.

“It’s not historically accurate, but one thing we felt we needed to compromise the most was to build a handicap ramp onto the back of the house,” said Sarna. “The ramp at the front of the house was too high and didn’t meet the requirements. We had to change the facade of the house, but we did it in a way that it’s hidden as much as possible.”

The handicap ramp goes to the front porch, allowing all visitors to enter the house the same way: through the front door, the only way TR (Theodore Roosevelt) and his family entered.

“TR wanted his house facing south and wanted his window and his front door facing his drive up so he could always see people coming,” said Sarna.

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TR’s library, where he spent a lot of time working, even during his presidency

When you enter the house, TR’s library is to the right, a room that Sarna said was often referred to as the “Summer White House.”

“He wasn’t one to take a vacation,” said Sarna. “Dignitaries would meet him here or he would be on the phone, constantly working.”

From the artwork and animal heads on the walls to the rugs on the floor, the house truly gives visitors a sense of what kind of man TR was: adventurous, well-traveled, hardworking and a family man.

“We are very fortunate; the first floor of this house is about 99 percent original,” said Sarna. “This is very unusual for a president who was in office in 1905…most houses you walk into, you’re gonna get maybe 50 percent. Other than drapes and carpet, every thing else is original.”

The North Room was added on in 1905 and still has the original wallpaper. Sarna said they just spent $20,000 restoring it, as the glue was starting to dry up. But, she noted that they are lucky to have so much intact, and have his wife Edith to thank, as the North Room was closed off and only used a few times a year from the time TR died in 1919 until Edith died in 1948.

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Teddy Roosevelt’s historic home

“Mrs. Roosevelt put up a wall with a little door,” said Sarna. “Because she did that, she basically put the room into refrigeration mode. That is a curator’s dream. She saved this collection.”

The house was built in 1885 and was strictly the Roosevelt’s home. Edith never upgraded the kitchen or bathroom. She wanted to preserve the legacy of her husband, but also didn’t have a lot of money to spend on modernizations. Sarna said that the Theodore Roosevelt Association wanted to purchase the home for years after his death, but Edith chose to live out her life in the home and wouldn’t sell. As soon as she died, they began negotiations to purchase it.

The family has also been generous in helping keep TR’s legacy alive.

“The family members were phenomenal,” said Sarna of the ability to secure so many original objects in the home. “Three of the children who were still alive sold the house and its contents to the Theodore Roosevelt Association that turned the house into a museum. Over the years, they have been fantastic.”

She said that there have been objects the family has taken back over the years, but ended up returning them to the museum in time. They’ve also let the museum borrow items for exhibits over the years.

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Plan your visit to Sagamore Hill.

“I have to admit, I don’t know that I would be as generous,” said Sarna.

The house will be open for tours beginning Sunday, July 12, when a family festival will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Festivities include a reopening address by family members and public officials, an appearance by TR impersonator James Foote, a children’s author, pony rides, arts and crafts, a “Rough Riders” cavalry demonstration and music by the Sagamore Hill Band under the direction of Stephen Walker.

Visit www.nps.gov/sahi/index.htm for more information.

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