But what if you turned around to see instead…an enormous Wal-Mart, surrounded by acres of asphalt parking lot? The iconic big-box store, directly across the street from America’s first and most prestigious presidential library?
It could have happened, if not for the timely intervention of the environmental and land preservation organization Scenic Hudson. Back in the late 1990s, the Drive-In’s owner was ready to sell, and Wal-Mart was among the potential developers lining up to purchase it. Scenic Hudson stepped in, and in July 2000 shelled out $3.1 million from its land trust endowment to take the 29-acre property and a much larger adjoining property off the market.
Over the ensuing decade-plus, many ideas have been advanced regarding the optimal use of the property. Now known as the Roosevelt Farm Lane, the adjoining 334-acre parcel connecting Eleanor Roosevelt’s retreat at Val-Kill with the rest of the FDR Home acreage has been under the control of the National Park Service (NPS) since 2007 and has become a popular hiking destination. But the Drive-In site itself has proven a bit of a political football. Scenic Hudson conducted a series of public forums and design charrettes to elicit community input into plans for the parcel, but commitment from Town of Hyde Park officials has waxed and waned as municipal leadership bounced back and forth between Democrats and Republicans.
As it stands, no final plans for the use of the Drive-In site have yet been announced, although the concept of a sort of park-and-ride transit hub for local tourism is one option that has elicited a lot of popular support. Scenic Hudson is still keeping its hand in, but the organization has just transferred ownership of the parcel to the NPS. The Park Service plans to build a new, enlarged trailhead for the popular Roosevelt Farm Lane on the south end of the parcel, with a spur trail connecting to Farm Lane. NPS officials have expressed interest in bringing back parts of the historic landscape, hoping someday to reestablish some of the Roosevelts’ farm fields along Route 9.
NPS superintendent Sarah Olson commented that many people today are seeking destinations that provide a variety of experiences, from touring the homes of the Roosevelts to hiking Roosevelt Farm Lane to making repeat visits to enjoy the gardens and hike the extensive Hyde Park trail network. “We want to give people the richest possible experience at our sites and bring them back to Hyde Park over and over again,” she said.
Meanwhile, the terms of the transfer reserve certain rights for Scenic Hudson on a portion of the parcel, which include continued leased operation of the Drive-In and development of some sort of future regional tourism center. “This property transfer will enable the Park Service to continue enhancing the experience people have at the Roosevelt and Vanderbilt historic sites,” said Scenic Hudson president Ned Sullivan. “Preserving land provides the cornerstone of a sustainable economy for the region. Besides contributing to tourism revenue and jobs, protected lands also help with general economic development.”
So stay tuned to find out what will ultimately become of the vintage outdoor movie theatre’s footprint. For now you can continue to pack a carload of kids for a relatively cheap, ‘50s-style summer evening out – plus you’ll have a better shot at a parking spot when you come to access the continually expanding Hyde Park trails system via the Farm Lane trailhead.