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South Street Seaport Museum Exhibition Explores Roosevelt's Passion for Collecting and the Allure of the Sea

NEW YORK, NY.- Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s driving love of sailing and his irrepressible passion for collecting will be celebrated in Treasures of a President: FDR and the Sea, an exhibition opening at the South Street Seaport Museum on October 22, 2008.

A prodigious collector from his youth, Roosevelt amassed one of the nation’s great maritime and naval collections. Treasures of a President will present over 75 objects from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, including naval prints, drawings, letters, memorabilia, and nearly 30 ship models— including many that were part of Roosevelt’s own inaugural installation at the Library and Museum in 1941. None have previously been exhibited in New York City. While president, Roosevelt displayed a number of them – including a model of the USS
Constitution that he personally re-rigged – in the Oval Office and the private living quarters in the White House.

Roosevelt was deeply tied to the sea. His maternal ancestors included ship owners and merchants who had made a fortune in the China Trade during the 19th century. An accomplished sailor, Roosevelt served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, founded the U.S. Merchant Marine, which was key to allied victory in World War II, and as president oversaw the largest expansion of the U.S. Navy in its history.

His naval and maritime collecting was most intense during two distinct periods: when he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (1913 to 1920) and during his extended period of rehabilitation from polio (from its onset in 1921 through the late-1920s). After contracting the disease, Roosevelt lost the use of his legs but was able to swim and sail, two of the few physical activities he could still enjoy.

Roosevelt sought out objects that reflected the glory of the American navy and represented turning points in American history. Highlights from Treasures of a President include:

• A four-foot-long model of the USS Constitution, the early American navy’s most famous ship. Known as “Old Ironsides,” the Constitution saw action in the Barbary Wars and other conflicts.

• Prints and paintings depicting John Paul Jones, the daring founder of the U.S. Navy and a special hero to Roosevelt. The exhibit will also include excerpts from a treatment for a film (never produced) on Jones’ life story that FDR wrote during the 1920s.

• A crystal watch key that belonged to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie, who famously carried as his battle flag ”Don’t Give Up the Ship.”

• Prints depicting the Civil War clash between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack, which a Delano relative of Roosevelt had
helped build), which faced each other in the first battle between iron-clad warships.

A number of the objects in the exhibition are personal, including a drawing of a sailboat Roosevelt made as a boy and the ship’s log from his mother’s 1862 clipper ship journey to China with her family when she was seven years old. As governor of New York and as president, he received a number of gifts from people who knew of his interest. Among the gifts was a handcrafted ship model made by an inmate at Sing Sing, which the prisoner named, hopefully, Pardon Me.

“The Roosevelt family’s ancestral ties to the water and his love of sailing and naval affairs were central to this remarkable man,” said Mary Ellen Pelzer, Director of the South Street Seaport Museum. “Treasures of a President is an exceptional opportunity to gain insight into one of the great leaders of the 20th century and an iconic figure in American history.”

Treasures of a President is a collaboration between the South Street Seaport Museum and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, of Hyde Park, NY, which owns the material. “We are delighted to share the tremendous wealth of Roosevelt’s collections,” said Dr. Cynthia Koch, Director of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. “Roosevelt was fascinated by the sea and by naval history, and he gave his collection to the nation for the education and benefit of the public.”

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