History of the FDR Library and Museum 

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is the first of the presidential libraries.

It was conceived and built under President Roosevelt's direction during 1939-40 on 16 acres of land in Hyde Park, New York, donated by the President and his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt. The library resulted from the President's decision that a separate facility was needed to house the vast quantity of historical papers, books, and memorabilia he had accumulated during a lifetime of public service and private collecting.

FDR speaks at the Library dedication, June 30, 1941.

Prior to Roosevelt's Presidency, the final disposition of Presidential papers was left to chance. Although a valued part of the nation's heritage, the papers of chief executives were private property which they took with them upon leaving office. Some were sold or destroyed and thus either scattered or los t to the nation forever. Others remained with families, but inaccessible to scholars for long periods of time. The fortunate collections found their way into the Library of Congress and private repositories.

In erecting his library, Roosevelt created an institution to preserve intact all his papers. These included papers from all his political offices, New York state senator (1910-13), assistant secretary of the Navy (1913-19), governor of New York (1929-32), and President of the United States (1933-45) and his private collections of papers, books, and memorabilia on the history of the U.S. Navy and Dutchess County, New York.

FDR's original sketch of the Library, pencil on yellow legal paper, April 12, 1937.
FDR's original pencil sketch of the Library, drawn April 12, 1937.

The Library itself is built of Hudson Valley fieldstone in the style reminiscent of the local Dutch colonial architecture which FDR favored. A sketch made by President Roosevelt dated April 12, 1937, shows the proposed building placed on the grounds very close to the site ultimately chosen and a ground plan roughly approximating that of the main block today.

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architectural chronology

FDR built it with privately donated funds, at a cost of $376,000 and then turned it over to the federal government on July 4, 1940 to be operated by the National Archives. By his actions, Roosevelt ensured that his papers would become the property of the nation and be housed in a library on the grounds of his Hyde Park estate where they would be available to scholars. Robert D. W. Connor, the Archivist of the United States at the time, said of the President, "Franklin D. Roosevelt is the nation's answer to the historian's prayer."

 FDR delivers a fireside chat from the Library, December 24, 1943.
"Fireside Chat" from the Library, December 24, 1943.

Roosevelt's actions served as a precedent. When Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act in 1955, it regularized the procedures initiated by President Roosevelt for privately built and federally maintained libraries to preserve the papers of future Presidents. Even though official presidential papers are now public property as a result of the Presidenti al Records Act of 1978, and there is legislation limiting the size and financing of museums, Roosevelt's original intentions of preserving papers in one place and making them accessible to the nation still hold true.

Roosevelt hoped the library would become an important research center and attract visitors to the museum. The museum section of the building opened June 30, 1941. How ever, the onset of World War II changed Roosevelt's plans, and the official opening of the library as a research facility was deferred as the President served a third term and then was elected to a fourth term in 1944. He visited the library often during the war to sort and classify his records and memorabilia; and from his study in the library he delivered several of his famous radio speeches or "fireside chats".

FDR's sketch of proposed extensions to the Library, May 21, 1942.
 FDR's sketch for Library extensions, drawn May 21, 1942.

President Roosevelt paid his last visit to Hyde Park in March, 1945 and died on April 12 at Warm Springs, Georgia, at the age of sixty-three.

In early planning for the Library the President expressed the hope that Mrs. Roosevelt's papers would eventually find a place here. In 1942 President Roosevelt made a rough sketch for wings to be added on to the north and south sides of the building should additional space be needed for her papers. At the time of her death in 1962 Eleanor Roosevelt's papers totaled a staggering three million pages. In 1972, the wings FDR envisioned were added to the original building. Mrs. Roosevelt's papers were stored in the South Wing, and a gallery devoted to Eleanor and her life and accomplishments was created in the museum portion of the new addition.

The Library reflects the vision that its founder displayed when he spoke at the dedication of the library on June 30, 1941. To maintain archival facilities and records, he stated: 

". . . a Nation must believe in three things.

It must believe in the past.

It must believe in the future.

It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future."

The library that bears his name has carried forward Roosevelt's message and has stimulated productive scholarship on his life and times in the same spirit.


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