Our 26th president, one Theodore Roosevelt, was a legit badass. He was just 42 when he took office, following the assassination of President McKinley, which makes him the youngest president we’ve ever had. After his death, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as commander of the Rough Riders at the Battle of San Juan Hill. His face is carved into Mount Rushmore next to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
He was deeply interested in conservation and established the United States Forest Service and the Wildlife Refuge system and created five national parks, 18 national monuments, 51 bird reserves, four game preserves, 150 national forests and placed millions of acres under public protection, including the Grand Canyon.
He’s credited with a whole bunch of presidential firsts, too. He was the first to refer to the White House as the White House, the first to travel abroad, the first to host a black man at a White House dinner, the first to fly in an airplane and the first to appoint a Jewish person as a cabinet member. And he was also the first American to win a Nobel Prize.
To me, Teddy Roosevelt always seemed like the OG American badass. He’s the dude who hears about danger and turns around and runs right the fuck for it.
At his birthplace, in New York City, you get to see the other side of Roosevelt, the before to his badass after.
Turns out, he was super asthmatic as a kid, and that pretty much defined his childhood. He’d have super scary asthma attacks in the night that left him feeling like he was being smothered. There wasn’t a cure, but still, he was determined. He worked out, started building muscle and trying to improve his physical fitness and found that physical exertion helped to counteract his asthma.
After a scuffle with some older boys, he got a boxing coach, started participating in bare knuckle boxing matches, and thus, an American badass was born.
The house that Theodore Roosevelt grew up in was built in 1848, purchased by his family in 1854 and he lived there from the time of his birth in 1858 until the family moved uptown in 1872. The original home was actually knocked down in 1916, but when Teddy died in 1919 the lot was bought by the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association who rebuilt the house, using the row house next door as a model.
The restored home recreates the house as it was in 1865, and Teddy’s two sisters helped with refurbishing the home, along with his widow, Edith.
The Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association and the Roosevelt Memorial Association merged in 1953 to become the Theodore Roosevelt Association and in 1963, the home was donated to the National Park Service, who has cared for it ever since.
The downstairs of Teddy’s birthplace primarily serves as a museum, with various items from his childhood and later life. Upstairs, you get to tour the house as it would have been when he lived there, dim lighting and detailed fabric covered walls and all.
The house is lovely, of course, and being a bit of a history nerd, it’s always neat to see places the way they would have been, but my favorite part was definitely the anecdotes about Teddy Roosevelt, about the kind of kid he was, about how upset the maid would get about all the dead animals he had in the icebox for his taxidermy projects, about the gym he set up for himself to help combat his asthma, about his bare-knuckle boxing matches when he was just a kid.
I guess it’s like getting a glimpse behind the curtain. It’s like humanizing a legend, and I think that’s why I like it. Teddy Roosevelt is this incredible historic figure, but hearing about his antics as a kid and seeing where he grew up makes him seem like an actual person.
NICE TO KNOW
Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site is located at 28 East 20th Street, in New York. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with ranger-led tours available at 10 and 11 a.m., and at 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. Since the house is pretty small, tours are limited to 15 people and that’s on a first come, first serve basis. The house is closed on Thanksgiving and on Christmas.