Have Fifteen Hours in New York City? Experience Grand Central Station, Hudson River Views, and the “Roosevelt Ride” to Hyde Park

Last December’s “Holiday Shopping Red Eye” motorcoach tour to New York City was so enjoyable that we decided to give AAA Ohio Club’s New York City Summer Red-Eye tour a try.

Leaving the AAA Worthington office parking lot at 6:15 last Friday evening, we stopped to pick up more travelers in Zanesville and St. Clairsville. Then, settling in for our overnight drive, we watched “You’ve Got Mail” and spotted many New York City sites in the movie.

After the bus pulled up at Rockefeller Center at 6:30 on Saturday morning, we parted company with the group, took a shortcut through St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and arrived at Grand Central Terminal to execute our plans for the day.

Located at 42nd Street and Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, Grand Central Terminal is the largest train station in the world. While the original depot was originally built and owned by the Vanderbilt family in 1871, it was torn down in phases and replaced by the current terminal between 1903 and 1913. Although millions of people traveled through Grand Central, the decline of railroads threatened the terminal and plans were made to tear it down. Thanks to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, the historic building was saved in 1978.

Today, the restored Grand Central Station serves commuters traveling on the Metro-North Railroad to and from Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties in New York State. We purchased round-trip tickets for Poughkeepsie, New York, where we planned to take the “Roosevelt Ride” and visit the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park.

Confirming our plans at the main information booth at the center of the main concourse gave me an opportunity to admire the terminal’s iconic four-faced clock on top of the booth. Downstairs in the Dining Concourse, we had breakfast at Junior’s, a Brooklyn-based restaurant, and made a mental note to pick up three of New York City’s iconic black-and-white cookies at Junior’s bakery when we returned that evening.

At 8:50, we boarded the train and began our journey that would take us along the Hudson River. Before arriving at Poughkeepsie at 10:37, the train stopped at Croton-Harmon, Garrison, Cold Spring, Beacon, and New Hamburg.

The scenery was magnificent. During our journey, we spotted Bannerman Island, a curious landmark near Cold Spring and Newburgh. The Bannerman castle ruins were reminiscent of those I saw while traveling down the Rhine and the Danube Rivers.

Approaching the Garrison station, we enjoyed a lovely view of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. As I admired the campus, I remembered “West Point in the Making of America,” an exhibition I saw at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in 2003. The exhibition celebrated the bicentennial of the United States Military Academy by highlighting the lives of several West Point graduates who became leaders, not only in the United States Army, but also in science, education, engineering, exploration, public works, business, manufacturing, communication and transportation. If you missed the exhibition, you can find out more about West Point’s history, noted graduates, an extensive reading list and more through this link. You can also read a 2002 book by the same name that was published to accompany the exhibition.

When we arrived in Poughkeepsie, we went to the train station’s ticket hall and spotted Victor, the uniformed National Park Service Ranger who was waiting for the nine people who made reservations for the ride. As we boarded the shuttle for the ten-minute drive to the Henry A. Wallace Visitor Center, the driver gave us a special “Roosevelt Ride” button featuring a picture of Eleanor behind the wheel of a car.

During the ride, Victor shared several interesting facts about where we’d be spending the day. For example, he reminded us that Vassar College is located in Poughkeepsie. He also pointed out the Culinary Institute of America’s main campus in Hyde Park, which is housed in a former monastery. And he told us about Mount Hope, the large tract of land on the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie that James Roosevelt, Franklin’s great-grandfather, purchased, and how the original Roosevelt family home was burned in an 1867 fire.

Turning down the drive that led to the Wallace Center, Victor pointed out a grand 18th century home on the grounds. Named Bellefield, it was the former home of Thomas and Sarah Newbold, and was remodeled by the architects McKim, Mead & White. In 1912, the Newbolds hired their cousin, noted landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, to design the home’s gardens. Farrand planned three gardens, each enclosed by hedges, stone walls and distinctive ornamental gates. Her design also included a rose garden, a kitchen garden, a lilac and fruit-tree allèe and a boxwood parterre. The Newbold family donated the property to the National Park Service in 1976. Today, it serves as the National Park Service’s headquarters.

The Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site deserves recognition for the exceptional experiences that it offers visitors. In addition to the convenience of the Roosevelt Ride, the site has prepared four different recommended itineraries so that visitors can make the most of their day at the site. We chose the “Franklin and Eleanor, with Top Cottage” option.

Reboarding the shuttle, we joined Victor for a ride to Top Cottage, FDR’s personal retreat that he built atop one of Dutchess County’s hills in 1938.

As we admired the cottage’s steep roofline and thick masonry walls, Victor told us that Franklin had designed Top Cottage to emulate the Dutch colonial architecture found throughout the Hudson River Valley. In fact, he sketched the plans for Top Cottage on the back of a government envelope. He also designed the cottage with accessibility in mind, so that it would accommodate his wheelchair and give him greater independence.

FDR brought close friends and political allies to Top Cottage to relax and converse with him. Although he visited Top Cottage 98 times, he never spent the night there.

There’s not much to look at inside Top Cottage, but what’s there is meaningful. A Toby jug of FDR’s likeness is on display in a bookcase, and there’s a hooked rug featuring Fala underneath a desk that Prince Andrew donated to the site in 2003, as a tribute to the Roosevelts’ friendship with his grandparents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Top Cottage also features an exhibition of Hudson River views drawn by William Henry Bartlett, a 19th century English landscape artist who illustrated popular travel books with fine engravings. Between 1836 and 1852, Bartlett made four trips to the United States, where he gained the inspiration he needed for his illustrations of American Scenery; or Land, Lake, and River: Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature. With text by Nathaniel Parker Willis, the book was published in London in 30 monthly subscription-based installments from 1837 to 1839. Admiring views that Bartlett captured from Hyde Park, West Point, the Hudson Highlands, and other locations conveying the region’s local history and extraordinary scenery, I appreciated what a fine complement the exhibition is to the care with which FDR is said to have chosen prints to decorate Top Cottage.

Victor invited us to join him on the porch, where we sat in wicker chairs, talked about the Roosevelts, and soaked up the peaceful surroundings of the woods surrounding the cottage. Victor told us about how FDR attributed his knowledge of geography to his large stamp collection. He passed around archival photographs of FDR and his guests at Top Cottage. He described the hot dog picnic that the Roosevelts hosted at Top Cottage for George VI and Elizabeth on June 10, 1939. And he talked about Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, a close friend and sixth cousin of FDR who was instrumental in developing Top Cottage. After Daisy’s death, thousands of pages of letters to FDR and diary entries were discovered under her bed. These documents not only served as the basis of Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley, a book edited by Geoffrey Ward. The relationship also inspired a BBC Radio play, “Hyde Park-on-Hudson,” which will be released as a movie starring Bill Murray and Laura Linney in December 2012.

We returned to the visitor center to browse in the New Deal Store and have lunch in Mrs. Nesbit’s Fireside Café. As we ate a “FDR New Deal Panini,” a roast beef and cheddar sandwich on focaccia with horseradish mayonnaise and cole slaw, we read about Henrietta Nesbit, the Roosevelts’ Hyde Park neighbor who was famous for her pies and cakes. When Franklin was elected governor of New York, Eleanor asked Mrs. Nesbit for her help with baking. Later, Mrs. Nesbit moved to the White House with the Roosevelts in 1933 and became the First Housekeeper, planning menus and keeping over 60 rooms clean.

Geraldine, another well-informed, well-spoken, and welcoming park ranger, was our tour guide for Springwood, FDR’s lifelong home. Springwood was opened to the public in 1946, one year after FDR died; Eleanor gave the first tour.

On our way to the house that was built in the 1820s, Geraldine pointed out the Rose Garden, where the Roosevelts, Fala, and Champ, their German shepherd, are buried. Stopping not far from the house, Geraldine relayed how FDR came down with polio and how he was determined to walk without assistance down Old Home Road, the drive where we stood. As he practiced walking with his sons down the drive, he continually fell and never was successful in accomplishing his goal, but he never gave up hope. To Geraldine, this illustrates the Roosevelts’ attitude toward life. They never allowed themselves to feel self-pity and maintained a cheerful attitude about whatever befell them.

Inside Springwood, Geraldine described how Little Lord Fauntleroy, FDR’s favorite book as a child, illustrated the type of childhood he enjoyed. In fact, the home’s entrance hall is a shrine to this famous only child’s interests. An impressive lineup of stuffed birds demonstrates one of his favorite pastimes, while naval artifacts reveal his ambition to become a naval officer. A collection of political cartoons from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 are reminders of the fact that FDR wrote his Harvard thesis on the role of the Navy in the War of 1812.

Decorated as it was when George VI and Elizabeth visited Springwood in 1939, the Dresden Room features a candelabra, a mantel clock, and a hearth cat that FDR’s father purchased in Dresden, Germany in 1866. Upstairs, we saw the bedrooms in which FDR was born and where he slept as a boy. The Pink Room served as the guest room for distinguished visitors like Winston Churchill and George VI, and includes a rosewood bed and bureau that were salvaged from the 1866 fire at Mount Hope. The Chintz Room was where FDR and Eleanor slept from their 1905 marriage until the addition to the home that they built in 1915 was complete. In the bedroom that FDR occupied after the 1915 addition, we admired the sweeping view of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains, as well as the chair in the center of the room where Fala slept.

Evidence of FDR’s disability can be seen throughout the home. Wheelchairs are in the living room and library, as well as near the second-floor landing. FDR’s chair in the dining room is turned back slightly from the table so that he could move more easily from his wheelchair to his dining chair. Geraldine also described FDR’s fear of fire and how, every night, after everyone had gone to sleep, he would roll out of his bed, drag himself down the stairs, and try to unlock the front door so that he could ensure that he could get out of the house in the event of a fire.

Last, we boarded the shuttle for the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, featuring Val-Kill Cottage.

In 1924, Eleanor invited her close friends, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, to join her family at their favorite picnic spot by a stream, Fall Kill, on the Roosevelt estate. FDR suggested that the three friends build a cottage nearby so they could enjoy the site year-round. By 1925, a small Dutch colonial fieldstone house that FDR helped to design stood on the site, named Val-Kill after the nearby stream. Nan and Marion lived there until 1947; Eleanor joined them on weekends, holidays and in the summer.

In 1926, a second building was built on the site to house Val-Kill Industries, an experimental business started by the trio and a mutual friend. For a decade, local residents made replicas of Early American furniture, pewter pieces, and weavings there. After the business closed, Eleanor converted the building into guest rooms and two apartments for herself and her secretary, Malvina “Tommy” Thompson.

Val-Kill was known for its comfortable, welcoming and unpretentiously simple environment. In Tommy’s office, a painting of Campobello by Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the Madeleine books, hangs above the fireplace. The dining room table was incongruously set with dime-store glasses and heirloom silver candelabra, reflecting Eleanor’s diminishing interest in possessions after she began life on her own in 1945. In the living room laden with photographs of friends and family, we saw the place where Eleanor and John F. Kennedy had tea when he visited her to seek her endorsement for his 1960 presidential campaign. Eleanor continued to live at Val-Kill until her death in 1962. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the bill creating the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, the only National Historic Site dedicated to a First Lady.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is also located on the grounds of the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park. The library not only is America’s first presidential library, but also is the only one used by a sitting president. It was designed by FDR himself, in the Dutch colonial style, and opened in 1941. While the permanent exhibit galleries are closed for the final stage of the library’s renovation until late summer 2013, the museum is presenting the largest photography exhibition ever assembled on the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The National Park Service presence at Hyde Park also offers the opportunity to tour the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. The 211-acre Hudson River estate of Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt provides visitors to learn about the social and economic history of the Gilded Age, enjoy vistas of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains, tour the 50-room home designed by McKim, Mead & White, and wander through gardens that define the American Country Place style of landscape architecture. If we join the red-eye tour again next summer, that’s what we’re planning to see.

At 5:00, the shuttle bus took us back to the Poughkeepsie train station, where we boarded the 5:37 train to Grand Central Terminal. We were back in the city at 7:21, with plenty of time before meeting the bus at 9:30 for our trip home.

After taking one last look at Grand Central’s ceiling, an elaborately decorated representation of the sky, with twinkling stars and astronomical features, we walked to the northeast corner of West 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, near the Empire State Building. Passing the New York Public Library, I waved to Winnie the Pooh and thought about visiting him there last December. We arrived in plenty of time to board the bus for our overnight drive back to Worthington.

We’ll be on the bus to New York City again this December. First stop: A visit to the Tenement Museum, a tenement apartment building located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that tells the stories of working-class immigrant families who lived there in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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One Response to Have Fifteen Hours in New York City? Experience Grand Central Station, Hudson River Views, and the “Roosevelt Ride” to Hyde Park

  1. Johanna White says:

    Ienjoyed your recap of the bus trip to New York and visit to FDR’s home at Hyde Park. I remember it well from an August 1954 visit there with my parents and still have a brochure from there.

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