The Roosevelts in New York

What bride wouldn't be thrilled by the gift of a splendid new house, big enough for a growing family? Yet in 1908, when 26-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt came home for the first time to 49 East 65th Street, just off New York's Park Avenue, he found his wife, Eleanor, in tears. "This was not her house, she sobbed," according to the biographer Joseph Lash. "She had not helped plan it, and this wasn't the way she wanted to live." The brick-and-limestone townhouse had been built by Franklin's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who'd promised it to the newlyweds in a note that included her own sketch, complete with a curlicue of smoke rising from the chimney. What really made Eleanor cry was that FDR's mom had built a double townhouse—and installed herself next door, with communicating doors joining their living rooms, dining rooms, and a pair of bedrooms. Eleanor would later write of her mother-in-law: "You were never quite sure when she would appear, day or night."

Less well known than Hyde Park or the cottage in Warm Springs, Ga., where he died, FDR's Manhattan home was sold in 1942 to Hunter College and shuttered completely in 1992. Now the school has completed an $18 million face-lift of Roosevelt House, which will become home to its Public Policy Institute, hosting seminars, special events, and occasional tours. Though FDR was frequently absent from it during his long political career, the house brims with history. After Roosevelt was stricken with polio in 1921, he convalesced for months in the quiet back bedroom on the third floor, while his political aide Louis Howe took over the front bedroom—leaving Eleanor to bunk down in one of the children's dressing rooms. The six-story house came with an elevator, but FDR had to fashion an armless wheelchair to squeeze into its small cage. In November 1932 he made his first radio broad-cast as president-elect from the drawing room.

Despite the Roosevelts' wealth—Sara paid $247,000 for the property and construction—the twin houses are surprisingly simple. De-signed by Charles A. Platt, they mirror each other exactly: their finest features are their elegantly curving staircases and a skylit air shaft that brings daylight into the upper-story hallways. The rooms themselves are modest in size and decoration. The sensitive rehabilitation by the Polshek Partnership includes creating an auditorium in the basement (where the kitchens were) and giving careful attention to the surviving original details, such as the cabinetry in FDR's library. But the walls between the houses' two living rooms and dining rooms are permanently down, which, surprisingly, would probably have pleased Eleanor. The future first lady would throw open the communicating doors when she held a meeting for one of her many social causes. When your mother-in-law is your next-door neighbor, all you can do is make the best of your situation. Besides, Eleanor ultimately found an in-law-free address: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.