The House That FDR’s Favorite Cousin Built

The Tudor-style Rhinebeck home once owned by Laura Franklin Delano is currently on the market.

For almost two decades, documentary filmmaker Leigh Anne Bishop has lived in the house built by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first cousin and confidante, Laura Franklin Delano.

“As soon as I came around the curve of the driveway and saw the house, every hair on my head stood up,” said Bishop. “I got chills all over. I had one of those moments. I realized destiny is taking over this day.”

Bishop fell in love with the house at first sight and later became intrigued by the woman who built it. At the time, she knew the Delano name because of FDR, but knew little about Laura Delano, a woman some described by some as a “flirt” and a “troublemaker.” She was known for being outspoken, but FDR valued her counsel. Eleanor Roosevelt once called her cousin-by-marriage “a loose cannon” and was said to have expressly not invited her over when the King of England visited Hyde Park.

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“This woman, this very interesting woman, quietly, but in a very cool way played a role in supporting the presidency,” said Bishop.

FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt with Laura Franklin Delano and Harry S. Hooker. Image via Wikimedia Commons 

The longer that Bishop lived in the home, the more she longed to know about the woman who built it. Her research eventually led her to make a documentary about her home’s previous owner.

“When Laura Delano built this house, she built it for herself,” said Bishop. “She was a single woman and was just about to turn 40. She had grown up on the river and had grown up with a sense of entitlement, a sense that she belonged on the river. She had a very appropriate apartment on Sutton Place and spent half of her life there, but she loved the accomplishment of having built this place because it solidified her as a Delano, someone who had invested, and had a vested interest, in the Hudson Valley.”

The home, which Delano called Evergreen Lands, placed her strategically near a collection of close and distant relatives. Within a radius of short drives were FDR’s home at Hyde Park; Delano’s father’s Rhinebeck home, known as Steen Valletje; FDR’s mother’s childhood home, Algonac in Balmville; and her cousin Daisy Suckley’s nearby home, Wilderstein.

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The Tudor-revival style cottage stands high on a hill overlooking the Hudson River — although in the last decade, the river view has become obscured by trees. Once inside, there’s little evidence of the generously-spaced subdivision below, as the home’s architect, John Russell Pope, nestled the fieldstone and timber structure into the peak of the hillside to take full advantage of river views.

The rooms may not be considered extravagant by today’s McMansion standards but the layout drafted by Pope makes them seem spacious by visually connecting the interior to the surrounding landscape. Providing a sense of peace and permanence, the views of fir-shrouded, rolling hills make it a comfortable place to relax and appreciate the beauty of the Hudson Valley.

Photo courtesy Joan MacDonald 

It’s easy to imagine FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt lounging by the fireplace or Winston Churchill savoring a scotch on the fieldstone terrace, as he did on more than one occasion. Delano frequently entertained her famous family and their equally famous guests.

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“Every one of FDR’s sons had his first drink here,” said Bishop.

According to Bishop, FDR and Delano spent time together throughout their childhood, as her father, Warren Delano III, was FDR’s maternal uncle.

“When FDR was living in Hyde Park, he had these first cousins that lived at Steen Valletje,” said Bishop. “He would go there before he got polio, before he married Eleanor. That place was like a party town. They would go to dances, play tennis, and ride horses.”

The cousins were close friends during the years when Delano was a proper ingénue and remained so later in life when she became known for her purple hair, bangle bracelets and brash attitude. When Delano’s brother inherited Steen Valletje on her father’s death, she decided to build her own home nearby. She wanted to breed and train Irish setters, so the house plans included a state-of-the-art kennel.

“She bought 150 acres for $100 dollars and ‘a few items of value’ which were not described,” said Bishop of the original deed, which she owns. “So, you don’t know if she handed over a diamond choker or a horse or 15 dogs or a crock pot.”

Photo courtesy Staley Real Estate

Because of Evergreen Lands’ proximity to Hyde Park, it was easy for FDR to visit his favorite cousin. Wanting to keep her close, he also asked to accompany him on his morale-boosting wartime train trips across the country.

“That’s how FDR got through the war,” said Bishop. “He could not be in the arena, could not be in the newsreels, (because of his polio) so he took these long train trips from New York, across the country to military installations. Grading the aircraft, grading the tanks, so he had all this great PR. Soldiers and guys in uniform all around him. The people that he wanted with him at the end of the day, though, were Daisy Suckley and Laura Delano, and that’s just fascinating.”

The home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Besides electrical safety upgrades, she remodeled an outdated kitchen, adding black soapstone counters and cherry cabinets that integrate seamlessly with the original butler’s pantry. A few items survive from the Delano days. An antique wooden ice box that provided cubes for FDR’s drinks is tucked into a corner room, now used for storage, while an original bookshelf stands in the upstairs hall.

“I fell in love with the original-ness of the house and all I’ve done since owning it is to get it even more like it used to be,” said Bishop.

In November 2016, after 18 years of living in Delano’s house, Bishop put the property on the market. The filmmaker, who has lived in England and France, decided that she is ready to travel again, possibly to Ghana or Russia, and part of the inspiration may have been Delano’s life.  Wherever Bishop goes next, she will take what she’s learned from Delano’s spirit.

“You can do anything you want to do,” said Bishop. “She didn’t have a limit. I try to remind myself not to have a limit, especially for the next chapter of my life.” 

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