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Historians Love Pack Rats Especially Those Roosevelts

OBHS Unveils Elizabeth Roosevelt Documents, Dan Christoffel Presidential Portraits

Elizabeth Roosevelt shared not only her family’s history but her sense of humor at the opening of the new exhibit at the Oyster Bay Historical Society’s Koenig Center on Saturday, Feb. 12. It features many of the Roosevelt documents she donated to the society as well as an exhibit of drawings by Dan Christoffel.

Liz Roosevelt asked, “What’s your favorite animal? To a historian it’s the pack rat. We pack rats collect what’s interesting to us. My brother in Colorado collects nothing but boulders and rocks [Peter is an artist and most recently was drilling for oil and gas in South Dakota].

“But if you have a family that lived here and saved things for two to three generations, that collection is a lot of stuff. History from the years 1881 to 1972 [and earlier].

“The family is very large, you could call us a cult - with members who are bankers, civil servants, artists, politicians and just about anything you can imagine. We have several in the political arena as you know.

“Until recently people didn’t eat oysters in months without an R. Well, we’re the out of season ‘Roosevelts.’ We’ve been quietly and happily living in Oyster Bay. Mrs. Weekes tells me she never had to lock her doors until the Roosevelts came to town,” Ms. Roosevelt ended with an in-joke. [She was referring to Gladys Onderdonk Weekes, of the Weekes family that has been in Oyster Bay since the 1600s, explained Harriet Gerard Clark, Raynham Hall Museum director. The Roosevelt family cousins first came to Oyster Bay in the late 1850s or the early 1860s, said Amy Verone, Sagamore Hill curator. The night before, Feb. 11, The Friends of Raynham Hall honored Rita Ravenel Weekes, Gladys Onder donk Weekes’ daughter-in-law, at a gala at The Creek, that Ms. Roosevelt and Rita attended.]

A Great Enterprise

Frank Leone, OBHS board president said, “We all put it together. Since I took over in June, using my resources in the construction business, I’ve saved us $350,000 through my influence and expertise in the business.

“It’s here! I promised Yvonne and Phil that they were going to have a museum show, with the space painted, lights, and a bathroom, everything is here and we are still fundraising for $100,000 for the second floor, the kitchen and the exterior,” he said.

In talking to the guests he thanked OBHS Executive Director Phil Blocklyn, Yvonne Cifarella, curator and the staff for their work. He said the building is 80 percent complete and that they will be fundraising for the next few months to raise the needed money to complete the upstairs area, elevator, kitchen and to make a beautiful building. A rug is still to come, he said.

Mr. Leone thanked Elizabeth Roosevelt for the donation of the wonderful collection. As he said it, the room burst out in applause and cheers. “She wants to preserve the history of Oyster Bay from her heart,” she said. There was more applause.

Julian Koenig, son of Angela Koenig for whom the Angela Koenig Research and Collections Center is named, said, “I wish my mother were here. Phil Blocklyn has found his calling. These pieces are fascinating. The letters are of extraordinary interest. We could never have had this without Phil Blocklyn.” As for the exhibit itself, he said, “It’s very, very helpful to see the actual translations.” Under the documents there were translations of the written word making it easy to comprehend the content of the pieces on exhibit.

Much Deserved Praise

The Baldino family had a lot to be proud of. Architect Lou Baldino worked on the plans for the building. Mario and the senior Phil Baldino of Baldino Construction did the work on the building. Mario said, “It really looks great. It’s going to be amazing, a great addition to the town. Frank Leone and the rest of the OBHS board did a great job. They were a great help in the project.”

Natalie Naylor, professor emerita of Hofstra University and currently editor of the Nassau County Historical Journal said of the Roosevelt collection, “It’s a wonderful donation to open this stunning research center. I may use it myself. The letters are of interest. I haven’t done things in that period but you never know,” said the modern era historian, in women’s studies and general Long Island studies.

Newsday writer Bill Bleyer said he spent two and a half hours talking to OBHS Executive Director, Curator Yvonne Noonan-Cifarelli, and Elizabeth Roosevelt looking at the pieces she had donated. He said when they contacted him he was very interested in seeing the collection. “I’m a Civil War buff and it was a real labor of love to see the letters. I could explain some of them and give the value of them. Some of the papers are priceless. There is a recruiting broadside for black troops and it is extremely rare. There are many Civil War stories to tell. What an amazing donation this is.” It has a great provenance in that the Roosevelts helped create a black regiment, he added. [It was part of James Roosevelt’s papers that were in the donation, said Mr. Blocklyn.]

Mr. Bleyer said he invited Mr. Blocklyn and Ms. Cifarelli to come see his Civil War collection. He added that in the current exhibit, “Some of the telegrams are exciting,” he added.

Fantastic Stuff

Mr. Blocklyn said they will spend several months researching the back stories of the letters and papers - each one has a story to be uncovered and told.

OBHS board member Steve Walker said, “It’s a great day for Oyster Bay.”

John Hammond, Oyster Bay Town Historian and an OBHS board member said, “Fantastic stuff. It’s a real asset for the Oyster Bay Historical Society and for Liz to have donated this material. I can’t wait to go in and really look through all of this.”

Assemblyman Chuck Lavine said, “This is very impressive. This is a major step toward honoring and respecting the connection the Roosevelt family has not only with America, but with our own hamlet of Oyster Bay.”

Dan Christoffel Exhibit

Steve Gilroy tied both elements of the exhibit together, the Roosevelt papers and the sale of artwork by Dan Christoffel as he said, “It’s fantastic of Liz Roosevelt to donate all her family papers to the town. I hope school children have a chance to see this. I love Dan Christoffel’s work. This is a great combination of history and art.” He had worked in a school where Mr. Christoffel taught years ago.

A wall of the exhibit room was dedicated to the works of Dan Christoffel – drawings of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt that were the original focus of the first exhibit planned for the Koenig Center. Originally Ms. Roosevelt told Mr. Blocklyn that she had some material about the Civil War that would complement the Christoffel drawings of Mr. Lincoln and TR. During that visit to her home was when she told them of her decision to donate all the material to the society.

Mr. Cristoffel’s drawings feature different times in TR’s life. “This was when he was the NYC police commissioner. That is the reason for the severe look,” he said pointing to a charcoal portrait in bold strokes. To the left was another that Mr. Christoffel described as being when “TR first became president after McKinley died and he took office. The drawings are on canvas instead of the traditional paper.” It is finished with a polymer fixatives he said.

His daughter-in-law returned from a trip to Paris with sepia, yellow ochre and raw umber pencils that he used for several of his new drawings. One is a study for a larger painting; he tried out the new pencils immediately by doing a sketch of Sagamore Hill.

“I’m inspired by the most  brilliant personalities in public life,” Mr. Christoffel said.  As an example of the two men, featured in one drawing he said, “Lincoln could beat someone down with his kindness and Roosevelt could beat them down with his power.”

Mr. Christoffel is knowledgeable about the men. “TR spoke five languages. He asked a Mullah about an Arabic poet and said, ‘I’d love to see the original manuscript.’ The mullah brought it out to show him. TR had read it in English, but had memorized it in Arabic. He recited the poem in Arabic, and blew the listeners away.”

Mr. Christoffel said, “I’m inspired by the great men I do drawings of, including the great conductor Leonard Bernstein and these two men as people of great inspiration. I’m never tired of learning about them. I’ve read about 200 books on Lincoln.” Mr. Christoffel is an advisor at C.W. Post campus of LIU. He teaches sculpture and drawing.

Picture number 13 in the exhibit is “TR during the time he passed the Department of Commerce and Labor Act where he stopped corruption and child toiling in factories.  The Labor Act created the labor movement in America,”  he said.

Under another portrait of TR features the quote, “The most brilliant personality in American Public Life since Lincoln, said William Howard Taft.” That was in honor of TR’s creating the     Food and Drug Act of 1906, picture number 10 in the exhibit.

Part II of this story will be in the next issue of the Enterprise Pilot.