Apr 21, 2006
Theodore Roosevelt was a colorful and celebrated American President whose vision and commitment led to the establishment of the National Parks Service and regulation of the food industry and child labor, among other achievements. It is less well known that he spent many happy days as a child visiting his Uncle Cornelius’s country home in Maplewood.
In 1855, when Maplewood was still a remote country town, Cornelius Van Shaack Roosevelt Sr. (known as CVS) of New York City, grandfather of the future President Theodore Roosevelt, bought the first of two parcels of land on Ridgewood Road, eventually totaling about 100 acres, from the heirs of Capt. Isaac Smith, who had fought in the Revolutionary War. The property extended from what is now Durand Road to Curtiss Place, and from Ridgewood Road up the mountain.
In 1857, Cornelius Sr. conveyed the land to his son Cornelius Van Shaack Roosevelt Jr. “for and in consideration of Mutual love and affection and the sum of one dollar lawful money of the United States…”
CVS Jr., Theodore Roosevelt’s uncle, built a large, ornate mansion called The Hickories on the property in about 1863-65, with a gate at the Ridgewood Road entrance that is still standing. The lane that is now Hickory Drive was the carriage road up to the house; it continued around the mansion to the carriage house that still stands on Durand Road.
According to a news account in 1905, “the house was a great rambling structure, with labyrinthine halls, in which it was easy to get lost. It was finished in old woods and, in its day, was a fine mansion. Theodore Roosevelt was a frequent visitor there in his youth, and occupied a room in the northeast wing of the house. After the building passed out of the hands of the Roosevelt estate and became an inn, the brass bed he slept in was frequently exhibited to the curious as ‘the bed that Teddy slept in.’”
Theodore Roosevelt, who grew up in New York City, had severe asthma as a child and visited his Uncle CVS’s country home in the summers to breathe the fresh air. He became interested in nature at an early age, and enjoyed exploring the woods and streams of the estate. A page in one of his natural history notebooks, dated Orange, NJ, Sept. 16th, 1872, lists a dozen animals and birds native to this area. Another entry reads, “Mr. C. Roosevelt informed me that a goshawk once swooped down on a rooster that was right by his house…Saw a specimen at Orange, N.J. on October 15th, 1872.”
Thomas Sharp, superintendent of the estate, lived in a farmhouse still standing on the southwest corner of Curtiss Place and Ridgewood Road. A one-room schoolhouse built in 1833 stood near The Hickories’ entrance gates. When the town built a new schoolhouse in 1868, Mr. Roosevelt bought the old one and moved and appended it to the superintendent’s house.
The estate also included a gardener’s cottage and a carriage house, both still occupied (on Durand Road just below Wyoming Avenue), as well as barns, corn cribs, sheds and a pig pen, as described by Bessie Sharp, the superintendent’s daughter, in Maplewood Past and Present.
The gates at the entrance to Hickory Drive were erected c. 1862 using stones from a building on the Isaac Smith farm. One of the stones on the south pillar facing Ridgewood Road bears the inscription I.S. 1766.
CVS Jr. died in 1887, but his wife, Laura, continued to spend time at the house. After her death in 1900, the property was sold, first to developer William H. Curtiss and then to the T.B. Ackerson Company, which began its division into building sites.
The Roosevelts’ home became the Roosevelt Inn, and then the Hickory Inn, as housing lots and roads were plotted around it. Neither establishment prospered, and in 1905, the building burned to the ground.
The South Orange Bulletin of Nov. 30, 1905 reported, “The fire resulted in a total loss to [the proprietor] Mrs. Roy, who is prostrated at the home of Thomas Sharp, of Ridgewood Road…” An eyewitness account by Edna Farmer Miller, who grew up on Mountain Avenue, describes the scene: “The most spectacular fire of my childhood was the burning of the Roosevelt Inn, which stood in Roosevelt Park on the corner of Kermit Road and Hickory Drive…. The fire broke out during the morning school session and every child was dismissed to witness the blaze. The dwelling was one of Maplewood’s old landmarks and it was with great sorrow that we viewed its destruction.”
The Ackerson Company went forward with development of the 100 acres into the Roosevelt Park neighborhood we know today. The stone entryways at the foot of Curtiss Place and Roosevelt Road were built about 1905-6, during Teddy Roosevelt's presidency, and streets were given the names Roosevelt, Sagamore, Quentin and Kermit (two of TR’s sons) to reflect the TR connection to the property. Promotional brochures featuring sample designs were sent to residents of New York, and by 1906 the first of the lots were sold and construction had begun. Most of the houses – like most houses in Maplewood – were built by the mid-1930s, but a number of those on Hickory and Curtiss were completed before 1910.
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