Theodore Roosevelt was fascinated by the natural world. While in the Oval Office, he made it his mission to protect the country’s wildlife and natural landscapes, establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves and five national parks. To this day, he is known as the “conservationist president.” And when it came time to choose a family home, Roosevelt settled on a patch of farmland in Cove Neck, Long Island, where he taught his children to boat, ride horses, hunt animals and care for them.
In the 1890s, several years before he became president, Roosevelt planted a copper beech tree at the entrance to Sagamore Hill, as the family estate is known. The tree grew tall and stood watch over the house long after the 26th president died there in 1919. But now the beech, once a flourishing testament to its original owner's love for the outdoors, has grown old and sick. And as Ted Phillips reports for Newsday, it is being cut down.
Afflicted by fungus, the tree had been posing a danger to both the home and its visitors, necessitating its removal. First, the limbs were sawed off. The trunk is scheduled to be cut down today.
“If you look at pictures of[Roosevelt many of them have him … in front of the house and there’s the tree, smaller of course,” Tweed Roosevelt, the president’s great-grandson and chief executive of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, tells Phillips. “It’s very sad. It was kind of almost like the ghost of the house or the guardian angel of the house.”
Roosevelt purchased the land for Sagamore Hill while in his early 20s, hoping to build a home there with his new wife, Alice Hathaway Lee. Construction began on the home in 1884, but the plans very nearly came to a halt when Alice and Roosevelt’s mother, Martha, died suddenly on the same day. The twin tragedies sent Roosevelt reeling, but he ultimately decided to continue building Sagamore Hill for the sake of his baby daughter, also named Alice, who had been born two days before her mother died of undiagnosed kidney failure.
In 1886, Roosevelt married Edith Kermit Carow, and they moved with Alice to Sagamore Hill. The couple raised six children in the 22-room house, and Roosevelt would traipse with them through the surrounding area, which he loved for its variety of habitats: woodlands, and beaches, and salt marshes and open fields.
After Roosevelt became president in 1901, he and Edith entertained many dignitaries at Sagamore Hill—“including envoys engaged in peace talks in 1905 for the Russo-Japanese War,” according to the Theodore Roosevelt Center. Sagamore Hill became known as the “summer White House,” and Roosevelt even had the estate’s piazza lengthened so he could build a podium for his speeches.
While the copper beech that Roosevelt planted will no longer stand at his beloved Sagamore Hill, its legacy will not disappear from the property. The National Park Service, which now operates Sagamore Hill, has saved saplings from the tree and will plant one of them in the same spot. The Theodore Roosevelt Association also plans to use wood from the trunk to make plaques, benches for the historic site and replicas of furniture at the house, which will then be sold to fund preservation efforts for Sagamore Hill.
“The Park Service would have ordinarily mulched it,” Tweed Roosevelt tells Newsday, “but I and the Theodore Roosevelt Association decided we could … make it useful.”
“Like [Roosevelt’s] legacy,” the president’s great-grandson notes, “this tree will live on.”