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The Roosevelts Next Door Exhibit Opens February 12

Elizabeth Roosevelt Collection Unveiled: Letters Highlight Oyster Bay Roosevelts’ Family History

The Roosevelts of Oyster Bay are more than just TR. That will become  evident as people view the new exhibit that will open Feb. 12 at the new Oyster Bay Historical Society’s Koenig Center grand opening. The exhibit is called, The Roosevelts Next Door, Portraits of Devotion, and will feature longtime OBHS board member Elizabeth Roosevelt’s family papers. She presented the collection to OBHS Curator Yvonne Noonan-Cifarelli and Executive Director Phil Blocklyn at a preliminary visit to talk about some representative material from the collection she had showed them earlier, saying that there was more at her house. “Yvonne and I met at her house in November 2010 and that was when she presented us with a box containing the papers and said she was donating them to us. We have been studying the material since then,” said Phil Blocklyn.

The two are delighted and awed that the Angela P. Koenig Collections and Research Center, (the Koenig Center) will be the custodians of the historic material. Mr. Blocklyn said they include letters from Ms. Roosevelt’s great-grandfather James, grandfather (William) Emlen, father John (which includes letters from TR), and herself, Elizabeth Roosevelt.

W. Emlen Roosevelt’s importance to TR is mentioned in his Facebook account. It states, “Theodore Roosevelt and he had a very close relationship as cousins. Emlen was not interested in politics other than to support his cousin’s bids for public office, and Theodore, busy with conservation advocacy, had little time to attend to financial matters. Thus, “Cousin Emlen” was Theodore’s financial adviser before, during and after his presidency.”

 Mr. Blocklyn described the importance of some of the [great-grandfather] James Roosevelt letters saying, “They show James Roosevelt was active in humanitarian efforts during the Civil War. He was supporting soldiers in the field, the way the Red Cross does today. He worked for what was called the Sanitary Commission which was a precurser to the American Red Cross. Poor rations and substandard clothing and medical aid was supplemented by the commission.

“They were on the fields for so long and the war department was not ready for a full scale war so the Sanitary Commission filled in the gaps in terms of getting medical care into the field and behind the lines. No one thought the war was going to last for four years,” he said.

The collection is from Elizabeth Roosevelt’s direct family line. “James and TR’s father were brothers so the men were cousins. Emlen, James’ father started to summer in Oyster Bay in the 1860s and that probably attracted other family members to the area. They were a close family, involved in business together; and were definitely aware of their family connections.” said Mr. Blocklyn.

Ms. Cifarelli said a highlight from the collection is a letter from General Sherman to the Sanitary Commission when he was preparing to leave Savannah and invade the Carolinas; and a letter from TR to John Roosevelt, Liz’s father about life at the White House.”

Mr. Blocklyn summarized the collection as containing: “A lot of public service material relating to the Civil War - those are James’ letters; there are private correspondences from Emlen and his generation; and for John, there is not a lot, but the interesting things are the two letters President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to John; and the letters Elizabeth wrote to her father John, especially when she was visiting Alaska. She has visited every continent except Antarctica.”

Dealing with History

Mr. Blocklyn talked about the collection itself. He said, “There is still so much we haven’t fully looked at piece by piece. We are going to show some highlights now and then look closely at all the material. When you get a collection like this you go from the general to the specific of who it deals with and what it deals with and when there is time you will look at each little thing individually. It will depend on our staffing but it could take about a year to do it properly - which is what we will do.”

He said most of that work will be done by Nicole Menchise, librarian/archivist. “The exhibition is Yvonne’s program right now and after that, it will be done by Nicole who will do the long time description and organization of the collection,” said Mr. Blocklyn who is himself, the former OBHS librarian/archivist.

Ms. Ciffarelli said of the collection, “It’s an incredible story in itself and gets overshadowed by the stories of President Theodore Roosevelt.”

“When you think of the Roosevelts and the Civil War,” said Mr. Blocklyn, “You think of TR’s father, TR, Sr. who did not serve physically in the war, but hired a replacement, which was common at the time. The nice thing about the collection is that James Roosevelt played a major role in humanitarian support for the war, an interesting part of the story that has not been talked about enough.

“Liz would talk about them, but not until we saw the collection did we realize their full value. Liz is very proud of her own family line, starting from [great grandfather] James. That is why the whole idea of the show is the Roosevelts who lived next door, in Yellow Banks, next door to Sagamore Hill, another group of Roosevelts who lived interesting and productive lives. That is why the OBHS is interested in them. They don’t have statues of them, but were important Oyster Bay residents,” said Mr. Blocklyn.

To sum it up, he said, “We are delving into Liz’s family and showing how they were instrumental during the Civil War through their humanitarian efforts; and their life in Oyster Bay. They’ve been here before TR. The exhibit is timely in that TR died on January 6, 1919.”

The Exhibit Space

Ms. Cifarelli said, “Another feature of the upcoming exhibit will be portraits of Lincoln and TR by Dan Christoffel. He was a professor at C.W. Post and Adelphi and is now considered an historical artist due to a previous show on Abraham Lincoln. The portraits are incredible and are for sale.

“There is a 3’x 4’ Lincoln and a terra cotta bust of Lincoln also. He is doing a portrait of TR commissioned for this exhibition. This was going to be our original exhibit. Dan’s work was coming first and then the collection donated by Liz Roosevelt came along. The Dan Christoffel work will still be exhibited front and center because it is related to the exhibit after all. We were originally going to borrow material from Liz for the exhibit when she surprised us. They fit in beautifully with the original concept for the exhibit Dan was doing for us,”

Ms. Cifarelli explained, “In the Roosevelt collection, Liz has artifacts from Lincoln:  evergeen sprigs in small envelopes from Lincoln’s casket and some from James A. Roosevelt and several other family members. They are very special relies They are small but they are very beautiful, and to think that someone collected them.

“There are initials on each envelope,” she added.      

The aim of Ms. Cifarelli and Mr. Blocklyn is to make an exciting exhibit out of the materials.

Mr. Blocklyn said, “It is going to be very dramatic with recessed and track lighting. The ceiling will be black to make the space look deeper. And the space will be totally dedicated to the subject with wall and pedestal installations so you can actually see them. It will be very engaging and innovative.

“It is really going to be a space people will want to visit because there isn’t anything like it in Oyster Bay. A space totally dedicated to historical exhibitions - here in the hamlet.

“Other exhibit spaces are commercial for selling art, this will be historical and museum-like, a first for the community. Today, the society along with other places in town are looking to exhibit more.

“The exhibit itself is part of the story but the new space we have – finally - is probably just about as important,” he said.

Mr. Blocklyn added another element to the mix, attracting donations for the collection. “We want to show that we have a new building that is secure and environmentally protected but we also have a chance to show the donations off as well - and not be put away in boxes and never seen again. That is part of the plan.

“People can sometimes think to themselves ‘I will donate this and it will be put away on a shelf forever’ but that is not our intention,” he said.

Frank Leone, OBHS board president, encouraged people to make donations to the group, especially now with the new building in place. He said, “The society is very careful in how they handle donations. There is a procedure in place to assure that their donations will be kept following all preservation practices.”

The Koenig Center

Philip Blocklyn talked about the new building and how the design has evolved over “The long 10 years.”  

Most striking in the design is that there are very few windows in the building. As you walk from the parking lot behind the property, toward the Earle-Wightman House, you can see the front entrance is made to look like a sliding barn door and is located facing into the OBHS colonial garden. The building is designed to face into the property itself. They own more property than was previously obvious, all the way to the tall trees on the west. When the new building is complete, it will all be part of the colonial garden area.

Design Considerations

Mr. Blocklyn said, “There are several reasons why there are few windows in the building. One is to preserve the collection from the ultra violet light that can damage the collection. Another reason is to reduce the heat level in the building. Heat can put more pressure on the environmental controls that are the important features of the building.

“Another important feature,” he said, “standing in the current exhibit area at the Earle-Wightman House, there are “windows”: they detract/cut down on exhibit space. So the solution is there are less windows for utility purposes and for environmental and exhibition flexibility.

“We didn’t want the front door to face the parking lot. People will come through what will be a beautiful garden space. We made many changes over the 10, extremely long years of the project.

“Overall, we tried to do the best you can within the physical constraints of the needs of the building,” he said.

It was a good time to chat about the funding for the new building.   

Continued Fundraising

Mr. Blocklyn said they are planning to hold one major fund raiser a year. “The next one will be in the late spring when the weather is good, we hope to use our grounds to stage a big fundraiser.  

“It is our intention that we could serve as a venue for groups that don’t have a venue but we would have to work out a system of payment: whether that is a user fee or donation or to do something in return. But, nothing is set and the board still has to make a decision. It’s an asset for not just the society but for the whole community of Oyster Bay; but how that will work out still is in the discussion stage.”

Mr. Blockyn said the old building will be put to new use. “There are two new things proposed for the old building, one is a gift shop and the other is a school for the traditional arts. There will be a presentation made on the project to the board at the next meeting.

“The plan is to have individual instructors come in on a class by class basis. People will register and pay a tuition and a part will go to the expenses of the class and materials; and to the instructor as a stipend; and it will be a source of revenue for the society.

“The classes will be offered either as one introductory class; some will be a series. We’ll try to be flexible in terms of using the house. We are going to so some research to see what is wanted - evening or day, and to see what is most popular.

“Offering classes in Theorem painting for instance would be great since we have some in our collection. We aren’t aiming at doing fine art classes, they are already being offered in town. It would be things that aren’t already being taught and with a tie to things in the collection.

“Theorem paintings are done with stencils, usually of animals with a floral or leafy background. They are not for everyone and no one will mistake them for Michelangelo,” he said of the Early American decorative technique. “It means finding the right instructors, he added.

One last detail, he said. “The board is still looking to complete the Dolan Grant, a matching fund. We are very close to the goal.”

Seeing the beauty of the new exhibit space – with knowledge that the building still needs work to be completed – the elevator is not in place – may encourage donors to come forth. That is the hope. For more information please call the OBHS at 922-5032.