Since Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill home opened as a museum in 1953, some historically important artifacts taken as keepsakes by relatives of the 26th president after his death have been returned for display.
One of the most recent donations is also the most valuable item in the Queen Anne house where Roosevelt died in 1919 — a solid gold ceremonial cup presented by the residents of San Francisco to the president during a 1903 visit.
The goblet as well as a set of four side chairs have been donated to Sagamore Hill National Historic Site by family members, who did not wish to be publicly identified. The pieces were returned to the house after it reopened last July following a $10 million, three-year restoration.
Sagamore Hill Superintendent Kelly Fuhrmann said the acquisitions “help us educate the public more fully on the Roosevelt family legacy.”
Supervisory museum curator Susan Sarna said, “We’ve been very, very fortunate” in that the family has donated items to the park. They include a china set with Theodore Roosevelt’s initials that the family used in the White House and then later at Sagamore Hill.
Those and other historic pieces are back at the site, along with other extraordinary items recently acquired by the museum — plaster casts made of Roosevelt’s head and right hand in the hours after his death.
The Roosevelt Memorial Association, forerunner of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, began protracted negotiations with his widow, Edith, and other family members after Roosevelt died to purchase the Cove Neck property and the contents of the house to create a museum.
Before the 1949 sale, an appraisal of the contents was done in 1948 by Parke-Bernet Galleries Inc. of New York. It determined the most valuable possession was the 18-carat gold presentation cup inscribed “San Francisco Greets President Roosevelt, San Francisco, California, May 12th, 1903,” which was valued at $1,500.
The cup is now in a display case in the Old Orchard Museum at Sagamore Hill with other gold gifts from the same trip to California.
Sarna said the set of an armchair and four side chairs is listed in a 1919 inventory following Roosevelt’s death. The park has 1914 photographs showing two of the chairs, one each in the library and North Room. Sarna said they might have been in the house earlier as the ever-frugal first lady often broke up sets of furniture based on where pieces were needed.
After the chairs were removed from Sagamore Hill, they were reupholstered in a floral pattern. When they were donated back to Sagamore Hill last summer, the Friends of Sagamore Hill, a chapter of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, agreed to pay $1,200 to have them reupholstered to match the original fabric, an orange silk velour.
Two of the chairs are in storage pending discovery of photographs or documents showing where they were located in the house. The other two are back in the library and North Room.
“No one knows where the armchair went,” Sarna said.
While the plaster death mask and hand casting were never at Sagamore Hill initially, they fill in important blanks in the history of the site.
When Roosevelt died, arrangements were made for sculptor James E. Frazier, who had sculpted a bust of Roosevelt for the U.S. Capitol in Washington, to come to Sagamore Hill. While Roosevelt’s body was lying in the North Room, the artist applied grease to the head and right hand and then covered them with cloth impregnated with plaster to make a three-dimensional impression. The initial mask was removed and cut into several sections used to make molds for creating plaster and bronze likenesses of the head. The molds would have been destroyed in the casting process, Sarna said.
The bronze death mask made from the mold was given to Edith Roosevelt, who kept it on a bookshelf in the North Room, Sarna said. It has remained in the Sagamore Hill collection.
But several years ago park officials were contacted by someone who had worked for one of Frazier’s relatives and owned a second death mask made of plaster, and a right-hand casting, and was looking to sell them. “We didn’t really know of their existence until we got the call,” Fuhrmann said.
The Friends of Sagamore Hill purchased the artifacts for $4,000 and donated them to the site.
The bronze and plaster death masks — each believed to be one of a kind — and the hand cast, one of two owned by the seller, are all now on display with memorial cards and other funeral items in the Old Orchard Museum.
“It presented an enormous opportunity to really enhance the holdings of the museum,” said Jay Perrell, treasurer of Friends of Sagamore Hill. “They are astonishing.”