09/17/2014 10:10 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Roosevelt House: Saving the Past to Inspire the Future

One of the locales Ken Burns used for shooting his outstanding PBS documentary "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History" is a landmark townhouse on East 65th Street in the heart of Manhattan. The building doesn't get a credit line, but perhaps it should because it played a special role for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt while they lived and serves now as a center for upholding the principles they believed in.

The building is Roosevelt House, Franklin and Eleanor's New York home from 1908, shortly after their marriage, until 1933 when they moved into the White House. The house has belonged to Hunter College since 1943, but when I became president in 2001 it had been shuttered as unsafe for occupancy for 10 years.

I found that totally untenable and made rescuing Roosevelt House a priority. Thanks to over $23 million, from public and private sources, we have restored and reopened it as the Public Policy Institute of Hunter College, a center of research and teaching that has attracted a Who's Who of world leaders, scholars, authors and journalists.

Not everyone agreed with the decision to restore the dilapidated townhouse. As a public college with various and important needs and potential improvements, should we really invest in restoring a historic home? But I persisted, first because the house is not only a priceless part of American history - especially in a city that has been surprisingly remiss in honoring two of its greatest citizens - but also because I saw this as an opportunity to inspire future generations.

The great husband-and-wife team of Franklin and Eleanor set an extraordinary example and has become an inspiring model for Hunter students who are often the first in their families to attend college.

That is why the programs we've launched at Roosevelt House are dedicated to teaching many of the issues that were central to the Roosevelts, like human rights, public health, education and public policy. And that is why we take incoming freshmen to the house where I remind them that FDR was disabled - stricken with polio at 39 and unable to walk unassisted for the rest of his life. Yet he went on to become one of the greatest Presidents, establishing a new concept of government as the safety net for those in need and then placing America in the forefront of world affairs as the leading defender of democracy. If you're discouraged by the adversities in your life, we tell aspiring students, look at what FDR overcame - and at what he accomplished.

We explain how Eleanor equaled or even surpassed FDR as an advocate for the least fortunate in society, fighting tirelessly for the rights of women, children, working people and minorities at a time when these were often controversial causes. The students learn that Eleanor was a feminist before that term was coined. She served as her husband's eyes and ears around the nation, and in the process redefined the role of women in the public arena.

In saving Roosevelt House, we have honored Franklin and Eleanor's Legacy. The townhouse was a wedding gift from his mother, Sara, but she had it built as a double-residence with one half for herself and the other for Franklin and Eleanor. The first three floors were connected, giving her free access to the living quarters of the young couple and their five children. As Eleanor later observed, "You were never quite sure of when Sara would appear, day or night."

To escape her mother-in-law's strong presence, Eleanor would go for long walks, some of which brought her in touch with students at nearby Hunter, then an all-girls school. She became such a good friend and regular visitor that one of my predecessors later described her as "an unpaid member of the Hunter faculty." After Sara's death Eleanor suggested selling the house to the college, which we now consider the best real estate deal since the original purchase of Manhattan.

It was in this house that FDR recuperated from polio, primarily because it had an elevator, a rarity in those days. And it was to this house that Roosevelt returned from the Biltmore Hotel in November of 1928 thinking that he has lost the race for New York governor. Not until 4 a.m. did he learn the numbers had shifted and he'd won. Four years later, FDR again came home from the Biltmore. This time, his mother greeted him as the newly elected President, saying "This is the happiest day of my life."

The house served as his transition headquarters, and many of the ideas that would become the New Deal were first discussed in rooms jammed with workers, office-seekers, files and piles of hats, coats and galoshes. The most memorable of these ideas was a proposal for an old-age insurance program presented to Roosevelt by Frances Perkins as a condition for her becoming his Secretary of Labor and the country's first woman Cabinet member. We know it today as Social Security.

This rich history helps make the restored Roosevelt House New York City's most vibrant memorial to Franklin and Eleanor, which is why Hunter College opens it to the public for tours.

But Roosevelt House is more than a memorial. It is a place where we keep Franklin and Eleanor's legacy alive by inspiring new generations of young people with the Roosevelts commitment to social justice. It is a place that exemplifies the Hunter College motto: Mihi Cura Futuri, the care of the future is mine. Bringing together the past, present and future in a beautiful building in the heart of New York City is what makes Roosevelt House special - and what made it worth saving.