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.