Photography by Allen Clark
Photography by Allen Clark

Susan Sarna — curator of the 26th president’s Long Island digs, Sagamore Hill — talks history and art.

Our August/September issue cover shoot with Ethan Hawke happened at historic Sagamore Hill, Theodore Roosevelt’s longtime home and the first Summer White House. On the north shore of Long Island, the home is now a National Historic Site within the National Park Service. Sagamore Hill museum curator Susan Sarna talked with C&I about the 26th president and his famous residence.

Cowboys & Indians: Theodore Roosevelt was born in a brownstone in Manhattan. How did this location outside of the city become known to him?
Susan Sarna: The Roosevelt family always vacationed in Oyster Bay in the summers. Theodore’s father had rented a home called Tranquility here. That’s why Theodore eventually purchased land on a nearby hilltop.

C&I: When was the home built and by whom?
Sarna: Sagamore Hill was built in 1884; the architect was the New York City architectural firm Lamb and Rich — Hugo Lamb and Charles A. Rich. Originally there were 155 acres. An interesting little side note: Little Texas — a quarter horse mix Roosevelt acquired down in Texas when training for the Rough Riders — is buried here on the grounds.

C&I: Would you call it a fancy place?
Sarna: For the north shore of Long Island, Sagamore Hill is a modest country home — nothing like, say, what the Vanderbilts were building. If he wasn’t living in the White House in Washington when he was president, or in the governor’s mansion in Albany when he was governor of New York, or in his sister Bamie’s home at 689 Madison Ave. in New York City when he was police commissioner, Roosevelt lived in this house, mostly in the summer. It really was a lived-in family-oriented home, but important matters of state were conducted here in Oyster Bay when Sagamore Hill functioned as the Summer White House.

C&I: So it’s a historically important place. ...
Sarna: Sagamore Hill definitely became important during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. Everyone in Washington, D.C., would leave in the summer because it was literally a swamp. Roosevelt had a phone installed at Sagamore Hill so he could conduct the business of the president from here. He was the first president to actually work from home during the summer. The act of installing the telephone was significant, not only because it allowed him to function from here but also because he embraced the new technology. One of the many reasons Roosevelt is on Mount Rushmore was his progressive thinking. He brought us into the new century in so many ways — everything from being an early adopter of the phone to establishing the Food and Drug Administration.

C&I: Would you say his lifestyle here was both highly active and highly focused?
Sarna: When you picture Theodore Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill, you must imagine both his physical diligence pursuing very robust fitness and also his civic diligence pursuing a very robust presidency. On the one hand, he might be riding his horse or rowing in the harbor; on the other, he might be receiving foreign dignitaries. Picture him here in 1905, when Roosevelt would have made a point of playing with his children at the same time he was holding historic meetings with delegates from Japan and Russia. In the Long Island Sound the group boarded the presidential yacht, The Mayflower, and sailed to New Hampshire, where they negotiated the Treaty of Portsmouth (New Hampshire), which formally ended the 1904 – 05 Russo-Japanese War, and for which Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize.

C&I: Some of our cover shoot photos show Ethan Hawke in the library. What can you tell us about that room?
Sarna: The library, which is relatively small, was built with the original house in 1884. There are portraits on the wall of his father and of Lincoln, his greatest idols. It was common that Roosevelt would meet with dignitaries in the library, which served as the Oval Office when he was at Sagamore Hill. This is the room where he placed his most precious items, the things that mattered the most. [His second wife] Edith could only put something in the library if Theodore thought it was appropriate.

C&I: Single out one of those important items in the library for us.
Sarna: In those days, the president could keep presidential gifts. There is a discreet brass coal scuttle, about 5 inches tall, that sits on the mantel. It was given to him after he negotiated a resolution between miners and mine owners. Roosevelt was the first to side with workers as opposed to owners. He did that in 1902 at the beginning of his presidency, and it set the tone for the rest of his tenure and for standing up for the laborer. It’s emblematic of one of the reasons Roosevelt’s on Mount Rushmore: caring for the working man.

C&I: Sagamore Hill transformed over the years, much like the man. ...
Sarna: In 1905, when he added the North Room, Roosevelt was president. He was a bigwig. His personality had changed dramatically over those intervening years. The North Room cost as much as the entire house had. It is grandiose: 40 by 20 feet, with 20-foot ceilings, all mahogany flown in from the Philippines. You see his transformation from the Harvard graduate who wanted to conquer the world to a president who had in fact done great things. The North Room features large pillars with stars on top. Roosevelt had the presidential eagle carved by Gutzon Borglum, the man who sculpted Mount Rushmore. The grand North Room befits what he had achieved. Here is where you really see how much Theodore Roosevelt grew up.

Find out more about Sagamore Hill in the August/September issue and on the official website, and read our cover story with Ethan Hawke.