Naturalist, outdoorsman, adventurer, and founder of the National Park Service, Teddy Roosevelt is my favorite president of all time. So after the outcry over my unintentional disregard of President’s Day, I decided to atone by visiting the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum conveniently located at 28 E. 20th Street.
Roosevelt’s boyhood home was actually torn down about three years before his death in 1919. A single story commercial structure was built in its place only to be demolished in 1921 to make room for a replica of the original Roosevelt townhouse. Intended as a museum from the start, the new structure accommodates administrative offices and a library in addition to five period rooms that “look much as they did in Theodore’s childhood.” The Roosevelt family donated furniture and various artifacts so that 70% of the contents of the museum are authentic president-used objects.
I wonder if I would be so enthusiastic about the museum if it had been rebuilt somewhere else like Disneyland or Times Square. Does keeping the original historical structure or site or building materials make the museum-going experience more authentic?
Entering the museum through the ground floor of the five-story brownstone I felt oogly about the building’s legitimacy. But my reservations melted away when I spied the uniforms of museum staff: Park Rangers! It seems neatly appropriate that the department created by Roosevelt should oversee his boyhood legacy. The Park Rangers also told me the museum is free. I LOVE PARK RANGERS!
I happily followed my Park Ranger Tour Guide (PRTG) up the stairs to the dimly lit parlor
floor where I learned all about Roosevelt’s study habits and his favorite red velvet chair. The three historical rooms on this floor are the dining room, study, and parlor—all decked out in elaborate printed wallpaper and crystal chandeliers. The floor above is home to the nursery and master bedroom. There, PTRG informed me about Teddy’s sickly childhood, rebellious daughter, and pro-Confederacy Mom. We also popped into a small, improvised library containing a collection of works written by Roosevelt.
It was on this floor that began to sense that PTRG was only mediocre, Park Ranger or no. Even an enthusiastic Roosevelt fan such as myself couldn’t ignore the verbal junk spilling from her mouth. While discussing Roosevelt’s childhood, she used the phrase “you could consider” seven times before I was distracted by a portrait of Teddy’s aunt and lost count. I had severe doubts that the family from Finland next to me could follow all of the qualifications our guide applied to her knowledge. “Some could say” was another favorite phrase. And she should have enunciated the name Theodore so that it didn’t sound so much like “theater”—I spent a good three minutes thinking that the Roosevelt family were avid play-goers.
The sad thing was that my guide obviously had knowledge of Roosevelt, just no engaging flair for story telling. The ability to tell a good tale should be a requirement of Park Rangers. Perhaps I could recruit THE BEST FRIGGIN DOCENT EVER to train them.
All in all, The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum was an enjoyable and informative way to pass an hour. But given a better tour guide it could be awesome.
28 E. 20th Street
With tours at 10am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm, 3pm, 4pm
Admission is free
Fun for history buffs and period-room biddies