A Memorial on Roosevelt Island 40 Years in the Making

Monday, September 12, 2011


Construction of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island has been going on for just several months — but the designs for the structure are nearly 40 years old. 

Architect Louis I. Kahn was commissioned in 1973 to design a memorial for the 32nd president after whom the island was renamed. But a year later, as the city was grappling with difficult economic times, Kahn died suddenly of a heart attack, and the project plans were shelved.

In 2005, architect Gina Pollara co-curated an exhibit at the Cooper Union about Kahn's design for the FDR memorial, reigniting interest in the project. Pollara, now the executive director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, the group that is running the project, said she has been amazed to watch the park come to life after studying the blueprints for so long. She calls Kahn, "an architect's architect."

"I refer to it as almost an Alice in Wonderland because sometimes it feels very big and sometimes it feels very small," she said.

The memorial is situated at the end of the newly landscaped Southpoint Park, which encompasses a total of 14 spacious acres. As you walk through the construction site towards the southern tip of the island, the granite "room" looms ahead. It's the focal point of the park, an open-air plaza with twelve foot high granite walls, each separated by one tiny inch. The granite blocks weigh 36 tons each and were carefully set with cranes and a team of stone setters. More than 200 people are employed on the project. 

The park is named for Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union Speech where he named four freedoms — of speech and expression, of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear — all of which later became part of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. As a founder of the UN, Roosevelt’s memorial will face that iconic building across the East River in Manhattan.

Pollara said, even though it's decades late, the timing for this memorial couldn't be better.

"Now it is so critical to remember all that Roosevelt did to pull us through the Great Depression as we go through our own economic calamity today," she said.

Kahn was known for his ability to create a sense of place in his designs. He used time as a recipe by creating grand focal points, considering how light would enter, and how a person would move through the space. Paul Goldberger is the architecture critic for The New Yorker and the Joseph Urban professor of design at the New School. He said Kahn created experiences in his designs, not just buildings.

"Kahn used to say the sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building," Goldberger recalled, "and you have to stop to think and get that, you know these were stop and smell the roses buildings."

This memorial will be one of just a handful of Kahn creations in the world. He wasn't a prolific architect, but as Goldberger said, "He was like a baseball player who rarely goes up to bat but hits a home run almost all the time."

William vanden Heuvel has been fighting to build the memorial for several years. He was there in 1973 when then New York City's Mayor John Lindsey announced the project, and later founded the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, which pushed to get the memorial built. He said he's always felt an obligation to see the memorial built. In 2003, the release of My Architect: A Son's Journey, a film about Kahn directed by his son, Nathaniel Kahn, also helped to reinvigorate the project, according to vanden Heuvel.

"It's an appropriate time to be inspired," he said. "I think as people of New York become more aware of it, it will inspire a lot of young people to be involved in civic affairs and to understand that we as Americans together have to build our nation."

Vanden Heuvel sees the memorial as an opportunity to teach people about FDR's legacy. Four Freedoms Park, LLC will launch a digital resource when the park opens in the fall of 2012. Visitors will be able to access the history of the Roosevelt years as they walk through with a smart phone, something Louis I. Kahn could only have imagined as he created the blueprints for the memorial in the 1970’s.

Sarah P. Reynolds

Gina Pollara, architect and executive director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, shows how the park will look.

Sarah P. Reynolds

Workers at the construction site.

Sarah P. Reynolds

Park architect Louis I. Kahn's "room" at the tip of the park.

Sarah P. Reynolds

Inside the "room" looking at the East River, towards downtown.

Sarah P. Reynolds

Gina Pollara standing next to one of the one inch spaces that divides the granite walls.

Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, LLC; Digital Rendering: Christopher Shelley

Rendering of the East Promenade and the entry stairway.

Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, LLC; Digital Rendering: Christopher Shelley

A rendering of the park looking north looking towards the "room" from downtown.

Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, LLC; Digital Rendering: Christopher Shelley

A rendering of the "room" and the enlarged sculpture of FDR's head that will sit in the entrance.


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Comments [9]

nycarchitect from nyc

We should all be very thankful that Louis Kahn's FDR memorial has finally become a reality after a 40 year hiatus. The memorial's design and location are a fitting tribute to both FDR and its architect Louis Kahn. I predict this memorial will become a major tourist attraction for Roosevelt Island and an important inspiration for many future generations. I would encourage everyone to visit this memorial when it officially opens later this year.

Jul. 12 2012 04:36 PM
george arnold from Boston

If one is not a fan of modern architecture, I can imagine few more inappropriate places to reside than Roosevelt Island.

There are so few buildings by Louis Kahn, it's great that we will have another one, the loss of the landfill "oasis" notwithstanding. Lots people despised the design of the Vietnam memorial when it was chosen for construction. Presumably many of those critics have reconsidered their position, or their heads are too deeply set in their posteriors for the rest of us to hear their hems and haws.

And btw, like the Vietnam memorial, the project is constructed of granite, not concrete. Reading the article prior to posting commentary often results in more intelligent posts.

Jun. 13 2012 01:27 PM
Dottie Jeffries from Roosevelt Island

Ditto on Gill Fickling comments- I can't agree more. I often walked the idyllic gravel
gravel road to the south tip of the island- feeling like I was partaking of the peace of a country road.

And I fear that the once nearly 360 degree view will be obliterated by the two concrete walls.

Sep. 27 2011 02:27 PM
Gill Fickling from Roosevelt Island

As a resident of Roosevelt Island, I agree with Francis Mead. Landfill site or not, the tip of the island was once a peaceful cricket-filled meadow, where Canada Geese grazed and one could watch cormorants bask on the surrounding rocks. That rural idyll in the middle of the city has been replaced by concrete. Another sad example of how bad design replaces nature. Could not a memorial to FDR have been designed to harmonise with the rural setting rather than replace it?

Sep. 14 2011 05:22 PM
Roger Broome from Fort Greene

To me, the memorial is like a spearhead, nudging a perfect paragon into the east river so a person can simply exist in a charged space for a moment. I have always loved Roosevelt Island and I feel so fortunate that this memorial is finally being realized. Thanks so much to all who have persevered in its creation.

Sep. 13 2011 04:42 PM
Jeannette in Tampa from Tampa, FL

Ms. Mead apparently does not know that the idyllic and peaceful natural area she is laments about is actually a land fill that was added to the island when Kahn designed the memorial
Perhaps a closer look will reveal that much of the area, except for the room at the very tip of the land fill will be and idyllic peaceful park setting that reflects substantial improvement over a heap of trash sticking out in the East river.

Sep. 12 2011 10:59 AM
Francis Mead from NYC

I listened to this with great interest and have a strong reaction. I am a great admirer of FDR and absolutely agree that his work should be commemorated. However, this monument is not the right way - and I think your coverage should reflect divergent views on the project - not just people who are involved with it, singing its praises. To me and to people I know who live on the island, the huge granite slab on the southern tip of the island is an ugly monstrosity. It truly reflects the worst of architecture from the period in which is was designed - concrete brutality. This was once an idyllic, peaceful, natural area on the island - this project has ruined it, totally insensitive to its surroundings. It's the wrong monument to FDR and WNYC should investigate other people's reactions to it.

Sep. 12 2011 08:32 AM
JaredtheNYCTourGuide from NYC

I hope they include something about Eleanor Roosevelt. She was wonderful and for decades the conscience of the nation and the world, with or without Franklin.

I am excited about this monument. I was afraid that they were putting some awful condo at the tip of the island!

Sep. 12 2011 01:22 AM
JaredtheNYCTourGuide from NYC

The film about Louis Kahn is "My Architect," not 'Mr. Architect.' It is quite good.

Kahn died in the bathroom at Penn Station in the mid-1970s, about 10 years after the grand structure was destroyed. I think the hideousness of that era's filthy and crowded Penn Station killed him. I bet he loved the light and geometry of the old Penn Station.

Sep. 12 2011 12:41 AM

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