OYSTER BAY, N.Y. -- Theodore Roosevelt had a lot of stuff.
There's the massive head of a 2,000-pound African cape buffalo hanging over a fireplace near the front entrance of his home, Sagamore Hill, on the north shore of Long Island. Next to a large desk in the North Room sits a wastepaper basket made from the hollowed foot of an elephant. Nearby, there's an inkwell crafted from part of a rhino. More than four dozen rugs made from bearskins and other creatures taken down by the noted big-game hunter adorn nearly every room.
There are 8,000 books and thousands of items, from flags to furniture, busts to baubles and medals to mementos.
Everything must go.
The entire contents of Sagamore Hill are being packed up and put in storage as the National Park Service prepares for a three-year, $6.2 million renovation of the 28-room, Queen Anne-shingle style mansion in Oyster Bay. The 26th president of the United States, who had the home built for him in 1885, lived there until his death in 1919. He used Sagamore Hill as a "summer White House" during his presidency from 1901-1909.
Workers have already spent nine months packing books and other smaller items into boxes, using special care to catalog every one and place it on a computer spreadsheet. The three-story home has 15 bedrooms and three bathrooms, as well as sitting rooms and offices. It sits on nearly 83 acres, high atop a hill overlooking an inlet that leads to Long Island Sound.
Sagamore Hill, which sees about 50,000 visitors annually, closes to the public on Dec. 5 so that craftspeople can begin the heavy lifting in earnest to rehabilitate the 1885 home that hasn't seen any major renovations in more than a half century. A much smaller display of Roosevelt memorabilia -- including his White House china -- will remain on display in a smaller building on the property throughout the three-year project.
Plans call for upgrades to the electrical, heating, security and fire suppression systems throughout the home, which has been a National Park Service historic site since the early 1960s. Exterior work will include a new roof, gutter and drainage system, foundation waterproofing, and restoration of 78 historic windows, doors, porches and siding.
Also to be restored are Sagamore Hill's original rear porch and a skylight in the center of the house, both of which were altered or removed in the 1950s when the Theodore Roosevelt Association owned the property and first opened it to public visits. The association ran Sagamore Hill for about a decade before the National Park Service took over in 1962 -- a somewhat fitting custodian for the home of the man who championed the creation of the national park system.
"Theodore Roosevelt's house is like anybody else's house," said Amy Verone, chief of cultural resources at Sagamore Hill. She joked, however, that not everyone tackling a renovation project in their home has to contend with finding a place for 10-foot-elephant tusks adorned with silver inlays.
"You should replace your furnace system, you should update your electrical system, you should do all those kinds of things," Verone said. "But in order to facilitate that work, we have to empty the house, because the artifacts are historic. We can't just run out and buy a new one if we drop or break something."
National Park officials at Sagamore Hill first talked of rehabilitating the mansion in the late 1990s, competing for finances with other park projects across the country. Finally, funding was awarded in 2008, and after three years of planning, actual construction is set to begin next spring.
Although officials have consulted with museum experts -- including someone at the Smithsonian Institution who advised on the care and storage of the animal skin rugs -- they confess to finding inspiration in many places. "We love 'This Old House,' Verone said of the PBS series on home fix-ups. "We're always watching it for clues."
Sagamore Hill is somewhat of a precursor to the modern concept of presidential libraries, which didn't come into fashion until one was built for President Herbert Hoover in the 1930s, Verone said. Before that, presidents usually gave their official papers to the Library of Congress, as was the case with Roosevelt, although his personal papers went to Harvard, his alma mater, she said.
The first national historic site was designated in the 19th century when volunteers worked to rehabilitate George Washington's home at Mount Vernon after it had fallen into disrepair. Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello and several locations associated with Abraham Lincoln are among the other sites. Most former presidents are remembered in some way, either by private associations, the park service or state-run programs, she said.
Roosevelt's birthplace in Manhattan, the site where he was inaugurated in Buffalo after the assassination of William McKinley, a national park in North Dakota and a small island in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., are also historic sites operated by the Park Service. Sagamore Hill superintendent Tom Ross said "TR" also has a "home" at Mount Rushmore.
Sagamore Hill, Ross said, "is a priceless, irreplaceable resource." He said the preservation is important "so that we can preserve the history and heritage and share it with future generations."
Verone said visitors to Sagamore Hill learn that Roosevelt tackled many of the same problems the country faces today. "What kind of country will we be? A place like Sagamore Hill helps remind the public of that.
"These aren't new problems; these are conversations we've been having for 100 years."
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