Few presidential homes are as simple or as evocative of their famous residents as Franklin Roosevelt’s Little White House in remote, tiny Warm Springs, Georgia. Built the year of his presidential election, and celebrating its 80th anniversary in May, the modest cottage is where FDR famously died at the height of his glory on April 12, 1945.
Unlike very every other surviving presidential home (and I’ve visited over 30), the Little White House is marvelously trapped in time, essentially preserved exactly as FDR last saw it when he expired from a brain hemorrhage. Even the exact same, aging paper towels still hang in the kitchen, as does the same toilet paper in FDR’s small bathroom.
FDR first came to Warm Springs in 1924, still a young man, but recently crippled by polio. He thought swimming in the constantly warm spring waters of the dilapidated resort might cure his paralysis. Of course, it didn’t, though it did persuade FDR that he felt better. He purchased the property, consuming much of his small, inherited fortune, and transformed the former resort for rich visitors into a hospitality center for child polio victims. Ostensibly, his lengthy visits throughout the 1920s and 1930s reshaped his upstate New York patrician views towards rural America, especially as the Depression arrived.
In a car with hand controls specially provided by Henry Ford, FDR freely drove around the picturesque Georgia countryside across the years. Sometimes his passengers included visiting celebrities such as Ford himself. Ever the politician, often FDR drove up to farmhouses to introduce himself. Delightfully the docent in the house when I visited on a beautiful spring day herself remembered an FDR visit.
“He drove right up into our yard when I was 6 years old,” she recalled. “While talking to my parents, he called us children over. Of course we didn’t know who he was, but he gave us candy, which he was known to do, so of course we remembered him after that.” As a teenager later, she, along with many Warm Springs area residents, often saw him about town and the countryside. But on the day his corpse was escorted to the train station for return to Washington, D.C., she was unable to watch because the high school stubbornly stayed open. “We haven’t had a president like him ever since,” she opined, asking that her views about the current president not be shared.
Visitors enter the house through the tiny kitchen, still stocked with a 1940s toaster and waffle maker. There are glasses used for serving ice water to the Secret Service, and a note scrawled on the wall by the final cook right after FDR’s death. The entrance hallway has scratch marks on the front glass ostensibly from FDR’s famous dog Fala. Each room is paneled with knotty pine, with exposed ceiling beams. The main room, filled with maritime paraphernalia, has a dining set made at Eleanor’s Depression era craft shop at Hyde Park. FDR’s chair where he collapsed sits before the stone fireplace, a card table in front where he had just signed state documents. He was waiting for their wet ink to dry when he announced a terrible headache and fell unconscious.
Controversially, he was hosting his former World War I era mistress, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, now herself a widow. She was accompanied by her friend the Russian portraitist Madame Shoumatoff, who was never able to complete from life her oil portrait of the President. It’s available for viewing in the site’s museum. As FDR lay dying, tended to by his physician, Rutherford and Shoumatoff beat a hasty retreat back to Rutherford’s South Carolina estate. Their presence might upset Eleanor, who naturally had not forgotten her husband’s affair of nearly 30 years before. But FDR’s two doting female cousins were also present on that last day, and one of them would churlishly spill the beans to Eleanor when she arrived to retrieve her husband’s body. The emotional procession of FDR’s corpse through Warm Springs, most memorable for the local musician tearfully playing Dvorak’s “Going Home” on his accordion, became the start of a national pageant similar to Lincoln’s funeral cortege.
The twin bed where FDR died is in a small bedroom right off the main room. Visitors brush by FDR’s desk. The only portrait in the room shows his long-time aide and speechwriter Sam Rosenman. A small bathroom separates FDR’s room from Eleanor’s bedroom, often used by other family members. A third bedroom on the other side of the cottage was for FDR’s secretary, originally Missy LeHand, but later Grace Tully, who was also present when he died. Two small guesthouses also sit on the property, one used by dignitaries, the other for servants. A few small guardhouses surround the wooded property. The property entrance has a swiveling bump gate that cars can push through.
There is no spectacular view from the unprepossessing property, just pleasant Georgia woods. The home contrasts dramatically with the more famous retreat at Berchtesgaden of Roosevelt’s chief rival, Adolf Hitler. The German dictator’s bombastic Alpine mansion looked out almost painfully on the stunning but severe German Alps. Such a sweeping vista, patrolled by legions of SS guards, must have only fueled Hitler’s monstrous grandiosity. Terrible crimes affecting millions were plotted at Berchtesgaden, which was bombed into oblivion by Allied aircraft near the war’s end. Hitler of course, filled with resentment, died by his own hand in a dank Berlin bunker as Soviet troops destroyed and overran the German capital.
FDR died peacefully, within earshot of chirping birds, after sharing witticisms with his admiring friends, in a humble but charming cottage in the red clay Georgia countryside. He had led the Allies towards victory over the Axis terror and lived just long enough almost to see the spectacular destruction of his nation’s enemies. FDR’s corpse was dispatched from the small Georgia village with tearful simplicity, the local people conveying what admiring millions around the world also felt.
To visit the Little White House is almost to meet FDR and to step back into days when epic events unfolded as America’s longest serving president slipped into eternity.