VINES GROW OVER the backstops of the tennis court. There is a buldozer buried in the pond. The board is missing from the teeter-totter and the remains of the greenhouse have been tossed onto the trash dump.
You are at Val-Kill the place where, Eleanor Roosevelt said, she "emerged as an individual."
Less than half a mile away by dirt road, an estimated 11,800 vehicles whir by each day on traffic noise here.
"The peace of it is divine," Roosevelt wrote to her husband in 1926.
The 173-acre site in southeastern Hyde Park and its cluster of buildings are now being set aside by the federal government as a memorial. And, just as the wife of the 32nd president of the United States was controversial in her lifetime, there has been disagreement about how she should be remembered.
Some favored spending $1.25 million of taxpayers' money, plus close to $275,000 a year in operating costs, for a center almost entirely devoted to seminars of 15 to 20 participants, with little public access. Others wanted to spend even more money to restore the site and make it a wide-open public attraction with a paved access road and a 100-car parking lot.
In a letter to a congressional committee in 1977, Secretary of the interior Cecil Andrus said that "studies, lectures, seminars and other endeavors . . . might be appropriate" at the site but only if they were "consistent with what we believe ought to be the fundamental purpose -- preservation, interpretation, and use by the public."
Congress wrote such a requirement into the bill authorizing the memorial. Despite this, a plan submited to Congress in May by the Park Service provides for some of the key elements of the site to be set aside entirely or primarily for conference use.
The plan is subject to congressional appropriations, but no opposition to the Park Service proposal had appeared as committee began action this spring. t
The place that is the center of the discussion, while more substantial than the average second home, is simple and, like the woman whose memory is being honored, a bit homely.
It started with a picnic. Late in the summer of 1924, Roosevelt and her husband were picnicking on a piece of land he had purchased on Fall Kill, a creek just east of the Roosevelt family's Hyde Park home. With them were two of Eleanor's closest friends, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman.
As Dickerman told it to Eleanor Roosevelt's biographer, Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor said, "This is our last weekend because Granny is closing the house for the winter.'
"Franklin said, 'You girls are very foolish. Why don't you build a cottage for yourselves?"
There may have been more than husbandly generosity to Roosevelt's gesture. Five years earlier, his wife had learned of his affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer.
Without referring to the Mercer affair, the Roosevelts' grandson Curtis Roosevelt told a congressional committee in 1977 that his grandfather may have agreed to the deed "due to a combination of generosity and guilt."
The cottage, a traditional Hudson River Dutch farmhouse with fieldstone walls, was completed late in 1925. Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook lived in the house, but Eleanor frequently used it. When Marion and Nancy moved to Connecticut in 1947, she acquired the cottage. It was used as a guest house, served as a home for her son, John and was rented out.
The second building had its origins when Nancy Cook undertook to build the furniture for the cottage. Eleanor helped develop this into a factory to make replicas of early American furniture and pewter to carry out "a theory . . . but establishing industries in agricultural counties to give men and boys a means of earning money in winter . . ."
It didn't really work. Although Roosevelt wrote in 1927 that "the furniture from the Val-Kill shop is a great success," it had become a financial drain by 1937. Roosevelt said in her autobiography that she was probably one of its best customers because she bought items as gifts for weddings or other occasions. When friends suggested she bring in a business-minded manager to make the enterprise pay, Cook objected and the partnership was dissolved. Roosevelt had the building remodeled to include apartments for herself and her secretary, Malvina Thompson.
On April 12, 1945, FDR died.
"In the long night's trip from Warm Springs, Georgia, before my husband's funeral, I had made certain definite decisions," Roosevelt wrote. "I did not want to live in the big house on the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park . . . nI knew I wuold live in the cottage that I had made out of my furniture factory on Val-Kill Creek . . ."
Roosevelt formed a partnership with her son, Elliott, to farm the land, but the only crop that paid was a stand of Christmas trees. After her death in 1962, the "Factory" was split into four apartments. In 1970, Val-Kill was sold to real estate speculators. In 1972, the new owners applied for re-zoning of the site to accommodate a nursing home, and were turned down. In 1975, they put the property on the market.
At this juncture Nancy Dubner entered the picture. In her college days, as national vice chairman of the Collegiate Councils of the United Nations, Dubner had been invited to Val-Kill by Roosevelt. In 1975, as an aide to the lieutenant governor of New York, she revisited Hyde Park and was "dismayed to learn what had happened to the place I knew as Mrs. Roosevelt's home."
Dubner and others formed Eleanor Roosevelt's Val-Kill Inc., a nonprofit corporation which asked Congress to establish the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site. Their bill would have required holding seminars on issues to which Roosevelt "devoted her intellect and concern." At Andrus' suggestion, the measure was changed to make this optional and requre that the seminars be compatible with use of the site by the general public.
Last August, the Park Service outlined three alternative plans for the site. These ranged from a program emphasizing crafts and seminars, in which only one third of Eleanor's "Factory" home would be open to the public, to a full restoration including dredging the murky pond in which a bulldozer that disappeared in 1937 remains submerged.
Another question was what to do with the $50,000 Congress had set aside for "an appropriate monument or memorial to Eleanor Roosevelt." The Park Service suggested three alternatives: a library for conference participants, the restoration of the flower garden, or a statue.
The weekly Hyde Park Townsman quickly editorialized that "the garden memorial is by far the most exciting and appropriate suggestion." At a public meeting held Aug. 28 to get local reaction, practically everyone agreed. That question seemed settled. No statue.
The Townsman also came out four-square for the "living memorial" program of crafts and seminars.
"The Roosevelt era is already admirably commemorated in the Hyde Park National Historic Site," the newspaper said. "Val-Kill need not be another tourist attraction."
Those who agreed with the Townsman argued at the meeting that the ecology of the site is in delicate balance and would be disturbed by too much development. Others maintained that a center for small conferences was an inappropriate memorial to a woman of as democratic an outlook as Eleanor Roosevelt.
Not all of the concerns were so philosophical. One person objected that dredging would destroy the cattails in the north end of the pond. One felt the tennis court should be torn out. One argued for widening the corridor to Roosevelt's bedroom.
"We have learned a lot from the people in Hyde Park about what Val-Kill used to be and what Eleanor meant to the people in the community here," said Warren H. Hill, superintendent of the FDR National Historic Site.
The plan submitted to Congress attempts to steer a middle course. Roosevelt's home in "The Factory" will be restored and shown to visitors who make reservations and are brought to the site by bus from the Roosevelt estate. Since the narrow hallway on the second floor will not be widened, groups will be limited to 10 persons. About two groups per hour will make the tour.
The stone cottage will not be restored and will be devoted primarily to conferences held by Eleanor Roosevelt's Val-Kill Inc. The organization currently plans conferences this year on work crafts, to be attended by craftsmen and union representatives; and on citizenship, for high school students and teachers from the Hudson River Area.
No new roads will be built. There will be a 25-car parking lot, more than a quarter of a mile from the historic buildings, for those wishing to view the grounds only. Only the southern portion of the pond will be dredged. The garden will be restored.
The Park Service hopes to have the site ready for its formal opening in 1984, the 100th anniversary of Eleanor Roosevelt's birth. In the meantime the site is being opened to visitors two afternoons a week, probably Tuesday's and Fridays, from Memorial day into October this year.
If you make the trip, you are taken by Park Service automobile from the Roosevelt estate. Driving down the one-lane road into Val-Kill, you pass stands of Scotch pine, spruce and juniper. Scattered posts mark the line of an old stone wall. A plank bridge crosses the small concrete-and-wood dam that controls the pond.
The first building you see is the stone cottage. In front of it is a swimming pool. White oaks, gray birches and shagbark hickories shade the surrounding patio. Beyond is Eleanor's flower garden, now an ill-tended, weedy patch in which corn, tomatoes and squash have recently been grown.
Beyond the garden is the tennis court, its asphalt surface cracked, the white lines faded, the net posts askew and the vine-covered backstop rusting away.
When Eleanor Roosevelt died, it had been 38 years since that picnic on the bank of Fall Kill. What began as a woodland getaway and evolved into a self-help project for underemployed fellow townsmen had become her true home. Here, she said, "I could find myself and grow."
Now, at least to some extent, the American people are going to share that home.