From Gilded Age mansions and drive-in theaters to waterfront parks and the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park has never been a town lacking excitement. But the June 30 unveiling of the renovated Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum launched this already popular site to the top of our “to do” list.
Designed by FDR himself, the building was constructed between 1939 and 1940, making it the first presidential library in the country. Since its opening in 1941, the center has attracted countless visitors from near and far — during peak season, as many as 1,000 people pass through its doors each day. Why is the site so popular? “We believe we have the best history museum on the East Coast, certainly in New York State,” says Director Lynn Bassanese. Home to millions of original black-and-white photographs, historical documents, newsreels, and old video footage, the museum uses its extensive archive to document Roosevelt’s legacy — not only in the political and military arenas, but in the personal, social, and cultural spheres as well.
For nearly 70 years, the library and museum remained virtually unchanged; but Bassanese and her staff eventually found themselves working in a building with an antiquated infrastructure. “We were actually going on eBay at one point to get parts for our security system,” the director explains. “It was completely outdated and in desperate need of a change.” While the building may have seemed in perfectly good condition to the casual observer, restorations were essential in order to meet the standards set forth by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. After years of lobbying, they secured $35 million in federal funding to back the renovations.
Preserving history: The roof on FDR’s 73-year-old library is replaced
Construction began in 2010, and was broken down into two phases, with new walls, windows, doors, and roofing installed and mechanical, electrical, security, and fire protection systems updated. But perhaps the most exciting improvements are the museum’s interactive exhibits. The site now features 17 audio-visual productions that incorporate both modern technology (like touch screens) and those unique artifacts that make this museum so special. “One of my favorite exhibits is FDR’s White House Desk,” Bassanese shares. “It’s the original desk — we’re the only presidential library to have the original — that FDR used during his 12 years in the presidency. We now have an interactive right next to it. With a touch screen, you can click on any of those little objects and find out what it is and who gave it to him. You can even open up a drawer and see some of the documents that he signed on that actual desk.”
By using modern technology to help tell FDR’s story, staffers hope to draw in younger visitors. “As generations of Americans have no personal memory of the Roosevelt era, it’s critical that the lives and legacies of the Roosevelts be preserved,” explains Bassanese. “And that’s our job. We try to make them understand that so many of the things that the Roosevelts brought about — the G.I. Bill, child labor laws, and the FDIC — are still part of our lives today.”
More than just appealing to younger visitors, Bassanese hopes to reattract Valleyites already familiar with the site. “We have so many people in the area who say to me, ‘Oh, I was there 10 years ago’ or ‘I saw the museum once.’ Well, now we have something new; and we want you to come back and revisit the Roosevelts in order to understand how important they were to this Valley, to the country, and to the world.”