Estate on Berrie Road has ties to Franklin Roosevelt

  • Posted: Tuesday, July 26, 2011 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Tuesday, July 26, 2011 1:21 p.m.

Two residential sites in Aiken stand as mute testaments to a woman at the heart of one of our country's most notorious presidential love stories, the illicit romance between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. Their relationship began after Lucy was hired to be Eleanor Roosevelt's social secretary in 1914. Her husband Franklin, who was, at the time, assistant secretary of the Navy, was smitten by the beautiful, younger woman; and their romance - the exact nature of their affair, whether it was physical or primarily emotional, is still a matter of some conjecture - blossomed until his wife's discovery of intimate letters from Rutherfurd in Franklin's luggage after his return from a trip to Europe.The standard version of what happened next highlights the intervention of Franklin's mother, Sara. This formidable family matriarch not only convinced her daughter-in-law not to divorce her son if he promised, in turn, not to see Rutherfurd again, but also persuaded Franklin not to choose Lucy over his wife because a divorce, she thought, meant his political suicide.Although he swore to break off any contact with Rutherfurd, Roosevelt apparently did not keep his word. As recently as 2008, in fact, letters between the two were found among the effects of Rutherfurd's daughter, Barbara Rutherfurd Knowles, who died in Aiken in 2005. The correspondence in question spans the years after Rutherfurd's marriage to Winthrop Rutherfurd in 1920 through World War II.Face-to-face meetings resumed after the death of Rutherfurd's husband in 1944, when she felt free to spend more time with Roosevelt. There is evidence that she visited the White House under the code name "Mrs. Johnson" and that FDR himself ordered an unexpected stop of the presidential train so that he could visit the Rutherfurd estate in Allamuchy, N.J. Of course, it has long been public knowledge that Rutherfurd was with Roosevelt at his home in Warm Springs, Ga., when he suffered his fatal stroke in April, 1945. Arriving shortly after midnight on the day of his death, Eleanor Roosevelt confronted two difficult challenges, arranging for her husband's funeral and coping with evidence of his broken promise. Lucy Rutherfurd herself lived three more years; she died in 1948 and was buried next to her husband in the family plot in New Jersey.Rutherfurd's ties to Aiken date from 1920 when she married Winthrop Rutherfurd, who was already in the habit of wintering in Aiken. He spent most of the year at his estate in New Jersey. However, in 1918, after his first wife Alice Morton, daughter of Levi P. Morton, vice president under Benjamin Harrison, died from appendicitis, he commissioned New York-based architect Julian Peabody to design and build a house for him on Berrie Road. Christened Ridgeley Hall, the current structure on the site - the first was destroyed by fire - is three stories high, made of brick laid out in a pattern called Flemish bond - alternating headers and stretchers - and crowned by a mansard roof. Aiken must have appealed to Winthrop Rutherfurd because of its many equestrian activities; it is said that he was an avid rider with a special fondness for fox chasing and drag hunting.As an interesting side note, Peabody, who is credited with the design of a number of winter residences in Aiken, came to a tragic end in one of the lesser known maritime disasters of the early 20th century. He and his wife, socialite Celestine Hitchcock, the sister of prominent polo player Tommy Hitchcock, died in 1935 when the passenger liner Mohawk sank after colliding with a freighter off the coast of New Jersey. Hitchcock traveled from Aiken to New York to identify their bodies.Winthrop Rutherfurd came from an old New York City family whose fortune was based on extensive real estate holdings on the city's East Side. Winthrop's father had been a noted amateur astronomer; in fact, the Rutherfurd Crater on the moon is named after him. Winthrop graduated from Columbia University, but his family's wealth permitted him to abandon any attempt at a vocation and focus instead on other interests. He and his brother, for example, bred fox terriers, and one of their dogs named Warren Remedy won the Westminster Kennel Club's "best in show" for three years in a row: 1907, 1908 and 1909.Although it is said that he was, at one time, secretly engaged to Consuela Vanderbilt until her mother insisted that she break off the engagement in order to marry a British nobleman, Winthrop finally married for the first time at the age of 40, and in due course, fathered six children. When his first wife Alice died, he looked to Lucy, 30 years his junior, to raise his brood. All evidence points to her having been a dutiful, attentive stepmother. She and Winthrop had one daughter of their own.After Lucy's death, Ridgeley Hall passed out of the family's hands; for a time, it served as the convent of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, an order which administered the Catholic schools in Aiken. Another Rutherfurd property in Aiken is Tip Top Too, built on Marion Street presumably in 1928. This was the home of Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd during World War II.A Carolina Trustee Professor, Dr. Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken.

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