Examining FDR’s Love for Architecture in Detail: A Case Study of Warm Springs

Franklin Roosevelt revered his Hudson Valley Dutch heritage and often declared Hyde Park as his real home. However, Hyde Park had rivals such as Washington, Campobello, New York, and particularly Warm Springs.

FDR loved to build. One of his non-political pursuits was architecture. He once said to a group of architects that if he were younger, he would have chosen it as a career.  His architect revealed that although he was untrained in the art, he had fascinating insights, a strong sense of physical geography, and was always excited about building projects. Besides, he was often fascinated and able to grasp building plans at their formation stage.

Influenced by a myriad of factors, he loved to revive and repeat old building styles, which shows in all his construction schemes. Since his childhood, he admired Dutch stone houses his parents pointed out on their drives through Dutchess County.

Similarly, he loved Italian castles and English Country homes. In 1915, he persuaded his mother to refashion their Victorian-style house in Hyde Park into a stately Georgian home to suit local practice. Later on, all the buildings he sponsored in Hyde park showed the Dutch building style of his Hudson Valley roots.

He was always poised to make suggestions, criticize and appraise the design of public works. In 1940, he suggested a building project for a post office and other government departments in Warm Springs. He also handpicked the brick used for the project. Besides, he offered an idea for re-engineering the highway close to the building.

The construction style of the South always amazed him. When he was president, he pointed out the structural design of the Richard-Owens-Thomas house in his argument for the conservation of the building. Wherever he was, he had the urge to build: houses in New York and Hyde Park, structures in Washington, a swimming pool at Campobello.

However, Warm Springs was the focus of his creative exploits. FDR spent many years trying to reclaim the use of his legs after he had infantile paralysis. In 1924, he heard about a man who had recovered the use of his emaciated legs after swimming in the naturally-heated waters of Warm Springs. He reached there later that year to find the Meriwether Inn, a derelict hotel near the town of Bullochville, Georgia.

Despite the gloomy environment, he soon noticed movement in his legs while swimming in the pool below the inn. Since it was invigorating, and he began to consider that real recovery was possible. He returned there in 1925 to exercise more and erect a lodge. But he didn’t build until he had procured the resort in 1926.

FDR contracted Henry Toombs to begin a plan to develop this estate. In 1924, Toombs, still an amateur architect, had met Franklin Roosevelt when Eleanor Roosevelt required help in building a small house near the main home in Hyde Park. It was Toomb’s first project, and the little house was later known as Val-Kill cottage. Worthy of mention is that FDR supervised the plan and erection of the building, making sure that it followed the Dutch colonial flair of other houses in the area.

FDR established the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation in 1927 as an incubator for the formation of a health resort. He built a cottage with the Southern Greek Revival style. Other buildings, porches, and pools soon followed. Roosevelt often contemplated a complete plan for Warm Springs trying to decide what type of structures the treatment center would need. Different projects, although not initiated, were proposed, including a 1926 proposal and a 1930 plan. After he completed the cottage in 1927, he was concerned about the further development of the resort to house polio patients.

In 1931, the supposed presidential aspirant started planning a private new cottage. He picked an area of Pine Mountain that had attracted him on his first visit to warm springs. Labeled the Little White House, it has a touch of the local Greek revival brand the area had to offer. But for privacy, he designed a reception area between the front door and the living room. Roosevelt also added flat ground in front, a high porch at the rear, and a fireplace made from the hillside stones. He died there in 1945 from a stroke while posing for a portrait.

A New Yorker who was adaptable, he was also a lawyer, engineer, statesman, doctor, and architect. Warm Springs remains the same way since his death. For a rewarding experience, you can still visit the tonic pools at Roosevelt Warm Spring Institute and the Roosevelt’s Little White House Historic site. It is a museum, healing center and is designated a National Historic Landmark.

Warm Springs has a distinctive American traditional architectural style. FDR always reached for a pencil when he saw a building sketch, and he was an innate builder and designer. Warm Springs is an evidence of his enthusiasm and dedication to building structures. 

He had the talent for planning, execution, and for every project he was part of, he seized every opportunity to design and control it. Although the warm springs project was a humanitarian gesture, its transformation from a derelict place to a notable center for polio eradication shows FDR’s intuition and character for architecture.