Susan Sarna, who supervises all things historical at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, is in the kitchen of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Cove Neck home, casting a critical eye at the plastic food replicas staged on a table.
The room is decked out for the holidays, but Sarna isn’t satisfied with what she sees. With a careful eye, she shifts the fake turkey so it’s at an angle on the preparation table and banishes a dish of “carrots” because the high gloss on them is too phony looking. When Sarna returns to the room, museum technicians Elizabeth DeMaria, 36, and Laura Cinturati, 26, have replaced the carrots with display potatoes and biscuits.
“I’m a total perfectionist,” Sarna said. “I do get a little particular if the vegetables are too shiny and don’t look real.” No detail is too small for Sarna’s attention. It’s a good attribute when you are the supervisory museum curator.
That character trait was put to its most rigorous test during a $10 million roof-to-basement rehabilitation of the 129-year-old house that concluded in July last year. It took three years of planning, removing and storing 14,000 objects from the Queen Anne structure, closing the home for three years of reconstruction and finally, putting everything back in place.
Sarna’s expertise and attention to detail are appreciated by her co-workers. “Working with Susan is an extraordinary opportunity,” Cinturati said. “She has so much knowledge about Theodore Roosevelt, the museum field, and the institutional history of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. I learn from her each day.”
Sarna, 50, of Huntington, said that reversing years of wear and tear at the home of the 26th president created some wear and tear on her because of the many details involved. The reward has been rave reviews for the revitalization, even as Sarna fine-tunes things unseen by the public.
The curator has worked at Sagamore Hill (nps.gov/sahi/index.htm) since getting her master’s degree in public history at Hofstra University in 1991. Last year, she was promoted to the top position in the curatorial department. “Sue Sarna has been a long-term asset to Sagamore Hill,” said Sagamore’s superintendent, Kelly Fuhrmann, who praised Sarna’s “passion for her work.”
Tweed Roosevelt, of Boston, a great-grandson of the old Rough Rider and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, which donated Sagamore Hill to the National Park Service in 1963, said of Sarna, “Her dedication and energy are an asset that enhances the visitors’ experience.”
Sarna said her interest in days of old was sparked as a seventh-grader at St. Joseph School in Garden City, where she grew up. “I had such a wonderful teacher, and that’s when I memorized the Gettysburg Address and started to get fascinated with history. From then on that was always my best class.” It was also her undergraduate major at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Her first connection to Roosevelt came in graduate school at Hofstra, where Sarna created an exhibit on the former president for one of her classes. To prepare, she met with then-Sagamore Hill curator Christopher Merritt. At the time, she was teaching European history at St. Mary’s and St. Paul’s Schools in Garden City. Merritt hired her in 1990 as a museum aide. Sarna found Roosevelt to be “a fascinating individual in that he had so many flaws that weren’t talked about when I first came here. You realize that not only did he have health issues, but the great losses he had — the loss of his mother and his wife on the same day — affected him so dramatically,” she said. Alcoholism in his family led to the deaths of his brother Elliott and son Kermit, she said, “And yet he used those harsh things that happened in his life to make himself stronger and a better leader.”
Over the years, interpretation of Roosevelt’s life has shifted from providing facts to be more about “the study of history through artifacts,” Sarna said. She’s most enamored with a 4-inch high replica of a copper coal scuttle the president kept on the library mantel. “In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt settled a strike of coal miners, and the miners were so thankful that they gave him this tiny little coal scuttle,” Sarna said. “It talks about . . . how he was actually for the worker, even though he wasn’t a common man.”
Another favorite piece of both Sarna and visitors to the house is the elk head in the North Room that holds Roosevelt’s Rough Rider hat and sword from the Spanish-American War. It’s a curio that Sarna said can spark dialogue about Roosevelt’s many accomplishments including his love of nature at an early age and his respect for it that became a passion for conservation. “As president, he set aside 230 million acres of land — the land is equal in acreage to all the states along the east coast of the U.S., from Maine to Florida,” she said.
Sarna’s inside-out knowledge of Sagamore led to her managing the $10 million rehabilitation project. “I knew where the pipes ran and which pieces of furniture were historic off the top of my head,” she said. As the key planner, Sarna was immersed in details involving the three years of preparation that began in 2008 before the half-dozen contractors set to work. “We spent an entire day in the North Room from dawn to dusk going over different lighting scenarios,” she said, citing one example of the details the public would never know about.
Managing the project “was so stressful that I would go to bed at night thinking ‘What if I screw up? What if something breaks?’ It drove my husband nuts,” Sarna said. She and her husband, Richard, 51, have been married for 24 years, and as a retired New York City police officer who understood the hazards of stress, he had moderate success in calming her down. She also tried to relax by visiting and sometimes riding Sidney, the horse owned by her 21-year-old daughter, Kendall, a competition rider who is a senior St. John’s University.
“Until the last object was put back up and nothing was misplaced, I really couldn’t relax,” Sarna said.
Even with the contractors long gone, “I’m always worried about it because it’s a living, breathing entity. The HVAC [heating, ventilation, air conditioning] system always needs tweaking. Some of the paint on the wood is starting to give us problems,” she said. “I definitely have job security.”
When she’s not in the old house listening for unusual sounds or looking for new cracks in the woodwork, Sarna works from an office in the Old Orchard Museum on the property. It is decorated with various Roosevelt-related items, including several teddy bears (named after the president, though workers here insist nothing but “Theodore” in any other reference will do) and a wall of biographical books.
After 26 years at Sagamore Hill, Sarna said, “I feel very fortunate because I feel that I have made a difference. When I walk away, I want to make sure that the house is as historically accurate as possible and that I left every object in the most pristine condition.”