The Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, known as Val-Kill, is the only national historic site dedicated to a first lady. When visitors arrive at the simple Dutch Colonial Cottage they are surprised that this was the home that welcomed figures such as Nikita Khrushchev, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and Senator John F. Kennedy. Val-Kill perfectly reflects the personality of its owner, the woman so revered and known as First Lady of the World. The site consists of two cottages, the Stone Cottage and Val-Kill Cottage, originally a furniture factory which Eleanor converted into a residence in 1938. It was the only home Eleanor Roosevelt owned and she lived there until she passed away in 1962. Since 1977, the site has been owned and operated by the National Park Service and opened to the public in 1984, Eleanor Roosevelt's centennial year.
The history of the Roosevelt family and what would become the property of Val-Kill began in 1911 when Franklin D. Roosevelt purchased the parcel of land in Hyde Park.The property was located across the main route and home of the Roosevelt family, Springwood. By the 1920s, the family and their close friends were frequently hosting picnics on the banks of the Fall Kill stream, Dutch for valley stream.
With her children growing up and she becoming increasingly independent and vocal in New York Democratic politics, Eleanor Roosevelt considered the idea of building her own home away from Springwood, which had always been her mother-in-law's domain. She also noted to her husband that when her mother-in-law closed Springwood in the winter to relocate to New York City there would be no place to host members of the Democratic State Committee. FDR enthusiastically agreed to assist architect Henry Toombs in building a cottage for Eleanor and her two friends, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, as well as some small factories to employ local workers.
Eleanor, Nancy, Marion, and Carolyn O'Day established Val-Kill Industries in 1926. First it operated as a furniture industry, producing fine heirloom pieces. The furniture was predominantly in the colonial style and mainly made of cherry, walnut, and maple wood. In 1934 another entity was added, which established a metal forge and produced a large number of pewter objects. Pieces of Val-Kill Industries made its way to Springwood as well as Washington and Warm Springs.Before and during the Depression, Val-Kill Industries was a moderate success, employing around 30 people at a time and retaining business in the small town of Hyde Park. Finally, economic pressures forced the Industries to close in 1936 and Eleanor Roosevelt transformed the factory into her own private cottage. Marion and Nancy left the Stone Cottage in 1947.
During her husband's 12 years as president, Eleanor Roosevelt used first the Stone Cottage and then Val-Kill as her retreat for many weekends and holidays. Her rule became that if FDR was in Hyde Park she would stay with him at Springwood, but if he were away she would stay at Val-Kill. She and FDR would often host informal gatherings at Val-Kill, such as picnics for Crown Princess Juliana of the Netherlands and for various journalists. FDR also had a swimming pool installed at Val-Kill where he could practice his therapeutic exercises and their children and grandchildren could swim.
After FDR's death in 1945, Eleanor made Val-Kill her permanent residence, but kept an apartment in New York City as well. At Val-Kill she would dictate her daily My Day column and pursue her work with the United Nations and in civil rights. A warm hostess, historical figures such as Winston Churchill, Marshall Tito, and Haile Selassie were welcomed at Val-Kill. Every summer she hosted a picnic for boys from the Wiltwyck School, a nearby school for troubled urban boys. After Nancy and Marion vacated the Stone Cottage Eleanor Roosevelt was thrilled when her youngest son, John, and his wife and four children moved in. With friends and family constantly surrounding her, she would often sit in her office into the early morning hours catching up on correspondence from her many admirers, and some critics, from all around the world.
After the First Lady of the World passed away at the age of 78 in 1962, her son John maintained the property for a few years until selling it. After Val-Kill was divided into four different rental units, a nonprofit group was founded to preserve and save Val-Kill from demolition. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter created the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site and seven years later, in time for Eleanor Roosevelt's centennial, Val-Kill was opened to the public for tours. Thousands come to this simple, unpretentious Dutch Colonial Cottage to learn more about the woman who was known as her husband's eyes, ears, and legs and who left an indelible mark on history.