Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site was established by the U.S. Congress to commemorate the life and accomplishments of Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site preserves the cottage at Val-Kill, the home of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and its surrounding property. The only National Historic Site dedicated to a first lady, ValKill serves as a window into Eleanor Roosevelt’s private and public life. Once part of the larger Roosevelt family estate in Hyde Park, New York, today the property includes the 181 acres (73 ha), buildings and other historic features that Eleanor Roosevelt called Val-Kill. It is located approximately two miles east of Springwood.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt and the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Born into a privileged class, Eleanor Roosevelt became a successful social activist, party leader, teacher and journalist. By the time she entered the White House, these experiences and the networks she established helped her to transform the role of First Lady. Champion of domestic social reform, economic justice, and human rights, Eleanor believed citizenship demanded participation, saying “We will be the sufferers if we let great wrongs occur without exerting ourselves to correct them.”
Eleanor Roosevelt created and shared Val-Kill with her friends Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman. At Val-Kill, they established Val-Kill Industries to employ local farming families in handcraft traditions. The Roosevelts frequently used Val-Kill’s relaxed setting for entertaining family, friends, political associates, and world leaders. Nancy and Marion sold their interest in the property to Eleanor and moved to Connecticut shortly after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. Val-Kill then became Eleanor Roosevelt’s primary residence and the place most associated with her. After her death, Val-Kill was converted into rental units and later sold to developers. A public campaign ensued to save Val-Kill and it was declared a National Historic Site in 1977. It is now managed by the National Park Service.
Val-Kill is a special place that serves as a window into Eleanor Roosevelt’s private and public life. Its understated beauty, natural setting, and unpretentious amenities may appear surprising to first-time visitors because of its simplicity; a vision that seems incongruous with expectations for the home of one of the most influential women in American history.
FDR purchased the parcel of land that would become Val-Kill in 1911. Eleanor became acquainted with the property in the early 1920’s, utilizing the east bank of the Fall-Kill for picnicking. Known for their love of outdoor activity and informal gatherings, the Roosevelt’s adopted the picnic spot as a favorite place away from the main house to relax in a secluded, natural setting.
Franklin encouraged Eleanor Roosevelt to develop this property as a place that she could develop some of her ideas for work with winter jobs for rural workers and women. She named the spot Val-Kill, loosely translated as waterfall-stream from the Dutch language common to the original European settlers of the area. There are two buildings which are adjacent to Fallkill Creek. Stone Cottage, the original cottage which was home to Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, which they sold back to Eleanor in 1947 and a large two-story stuccoed building that housed Val-Kill Industries and which would become Eleanor’s home after Franklin’s death. It was the only residence that she personally owned.
Eleanor Roosevelt often hosted workshops for Encampment for Citizenship here. The idea for Val-Kill stemmed from one of these picnics with Eleanor Roosevelt’s close friends Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook. During one lively discussion, FDR imagined small industries that could keep farming viable during hard economic times. Eleanor tested this idea. With FDR’s consent, they decided to build a cottage and workshop. Financed with the women’s income, Val-Kill Industries revived handcraft traditions suitable for family-owned farms. Handcrafts such as furniture-making, metalwork and weaving added income, especially in winter. As a skills training program, Val-Kill Industries later provided a model for New Deal recovery programs.
The cottage became the nucleus of Franklin and Eleanor’s overlapping network of friends and political associates. After FDR’s death in 1945, Val-Kill became Mrs. Roosevelt’s permanent home. In Val-Kill’s tranquil setting, Mrs. Roosevelt continued the tradition of convening people who shared her vision.
During this time, Eleanor and Franklin formed a unique partnership. Driven by independent interests, they were united by a strong, complex vision and overlapping circles of friends and associates. As FDR advanced politically, Eleanor’s influence grew in both the Democratic women’s movement and the president’s administration. In Val-Kill’s relaxed atmosphere, the Roosevelts gathered advisors, reformers, dignitaries, and even movie stars to address pressing issues of the times. Working together, Franklin and Eleanor built alliances and shaped national politics. Eleanor Roosevelt transformed the role of first lady, bringing decades of women’s social reform work to the national political agenda. For the rest of her life, Val-Kill remained a source of inspiration and a gathering place for those who shared her vision.
These stories are presented in “Eleanor Roosevelt and Val-Kill: Emergence of a Political Leader,” a new permanent exhibit located in the Stone Cottage at Val-Kill which examines Eleanor Roosevelt’s world during the 1920s and 1930s and the influential women and men she worked with to shape a national political agenda during the New Deal.
The larger house was converted into four rental units after Eleanor’s death in 1962, and in 1970 the land was purchased by a private company for development purposes. Public reaction to this sale developed into a preservation campaign and the possibility of making the site a national memorial. In May 1977, Val-Kill was designated the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site by an Act of Congress, “to commemorate for the education, inspiration, and benefit of present and future generations the life and work of an outstanding woman in American history.”
As a historic site
In 1984 the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill negotiated an agreement with the National Park Service and made Stone Cottage its home. In 2008 the Eleanor Roosevelt Center moved from Stone Cottage to a new facility at Val-Kill.
In 1998, Save America’s Treasures (SAT) announced Val-Kill Cottage as a new official project. SAT’s involvement led to the Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt (HER) project, initially run by private volunteers and now a part of SAT. The HER project has since raised almost $1 million, which has gone toward restoration and development efforts at Val-Kill and the production of Eleanor Roosevelt: Close to Home, a documentary about Roosevelt at Val-Kill. Due in part to the success of these programs, Val-Kill was given a $75,000 grant and named one of 12 sites showcased in Restore America: A Salute to Preservation, a partnership between SAT, the National Trust and HGTV.
The site is managed by the National Park Service (NPS) in conjunction with the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site and Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. The NPS continues to partner with SAT and the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill in the management of the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site.