Found in the Archives

Americans With Disabilities Act

President Roosevelt in his wheelchair on the porch at Top Cottage in Hyde Park, NY with Ruthie Bie and Fala. February 1941.
President Roosevelt in his wheelchair on the porch at Top Cottage in Hyde Park, NY with Ruthie Bie and Fala. February 1941.

To commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the National Archives is featuring Presidential records related to disability history on a new web research page. Following that theme, below is a brief description of how FDR’s disability affected the design of his private retreat and of the first Presidential Library.

The FDR Library Building

The FDR Library was conceived and built under President Roosevelt’s direction during 1939-41 on 16 acres of land in Hyde Park, New York. Roosevelt decided that a dedicated facility was needed to house the vast quantity of historical papers, books, and memorabilia he had accumulated during a lifetime of public service and private collecting.

FDR considered himself to be an amateur architect, and was intimately involved in the design of the Library. He was particularly fond of the Hudson Valley Dutch Colonial style of architecture, and the Library was built in this fashion. The building provided not only museum space for visitors and a formal office for FDR but also storage areas for FDR’s vast collections.

Because a 1921 attack of polio had left Roosevelt paralyzed from the waist down, FDR  primarily used personally-designed wheelchairs for daily mobility. Since he intended to personally and regularly use the vast collection of papers and manuscripts housed in the archives at the Library, he made sure the storage area aisles were built wide enough to accommodate his wheelchair. He also personally designed the document storage boxes initially used to house his papers. To enable his own lap-top style reading while in the storage areas, a special box type was created that could lie flat on the shelf, open in a clam-shell fashion, and act as a sort of paper tray. For preservation purposes, these boxes have since been replaced with newer, acid-free archival containers, but FDR’s original shelving remains in place in many parts of the Library storage areas.

Historic view of FDR Library Archival Stacks
An archivist at work in the FDR Library archival stacks, circa 1950s. The document boxes were designed by FDR.
Historic view of FDR Library Archival Stacks
Historic view of FDR Library archival stacks, featuring the original document boxes. FDR’s carefully arranged shelving remains in place in some areas of the Library today.

Top Cottage

Architectural design to accommodate FDR’s disability is also seen at Top Cottage, the Dutch Colonial style retreat FDR built for himself in 1938. FDR played a large role in the design of the building, which features a number of accommodations for FDR’s wheelchair. There are no steps to the first floor of the cottage, and a natural earthen ramp was built off the porch to provide access. Within the cottage, there are no thresholds on any of the doorways that might prohibit FDR from easily accessing any of the rooms, and all of the windows inside were built lower to the ground to give FDR clear views of the outside.

Architect's drawing of To Cottage exterior
Architect’s drawing of Top Cottage exterior
Top Cottage blueprint with FDR's handwritten notations
Top Cottage blueprint with FDR’s handwritten notations
View of the Top Cottage drawing room interior, 1945
View of the Top Cottage drawing room interior, 1945

Find more information about about FDR and polio on our Library’s official website.

3 thoughts on “Found in the Archives

  1. Thank you for posting that information about FDR’s creative side.

    Yes, FDR was an endlessly creative man.

    He created the concept of the presidential library; he created the crutch still used at Warm Springs; he designed techniques for measuring the muscle ability of the polios at Warm Springs (techniques still in use today); he devised the hand controls for his car so he could be free to drive around the Georgia countryside, stopping whenever he saw a farmer or worker. As he stopped to chat with the local people along the way, FDR could learn the specifics of their struggles, information he was able to use in developing policies to help the millions of Americans whose struggles were similar.

    FDR was a very creative person, and not enough is mentioned about that side of him in books and articles written about him.

    So, I thank you for this nice post.

    1. There many examples in our won modern times of people using their disabilities to create ways for others to enjoy a better quality of life. Definitely a blog subject for anyone interested in researching this topic further.

  2. In 1937, when he was already president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis; the Foundation’s goal was to provide care to polio victims and to support research.

    From the beginning of FDR’s “March of Dimes” campaign to support the Foundation’s work, millions of dimes began pouring into the White House so that, in 1938, the March of Dimes was able to make its first research grant, which was to Yale University.

    By 1955, the year the Salk vaccine was declared safe, effective, and potent, the March of Dimes had invested $25.5 million in research. Although FDR did not live to see the vaccine’s success, he and the March of Dimes were so closely associated that the U.S. Congress honored FDR’s memory by putting his face on the dime — and I hope never to see FDR’s face on the dime replaced by Reagan’s (as so many on the Right wish to do).

    Although polio is pretty much under control now, the March of Dimes is still a viable project, funding valuable research on such problems as birth defects, premature births, etc..

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