The Path of Kahn

Louis Kahn died 30 years ago, and his stature as one of the 20th Century’s greatest architects has grown ever since. One of his last projects was never built – a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the East River island that bears his name. WNYC's Fred Mogul reports on a new exhibit, which organizers hope will help bring Kahn's ill-fated FDR project to completion.

FM: If you walk south from the Roosevelt Island tram, within a few minutes, you come to the gated entrance to South Point. It is essentially an abandoned lot, with a couple dirt roads, lined by chain-link fences, and the eerie hollow ruins of a 19th-century smallpox hospital, which is lit up at night. As you approach the tip, you run into a wide, overgrown mound.

EOD: The top of the mound is fenced off, but if we can I think we should walk up the hill to the top ...

FM: Elizabeth O'Donnell is associate dean of the architecture school at Cooper-Union.

EOD: As we're passing through this area, we would be passing through a row of copper beech trees in the final plan, and then we would be walking up the grand staircase . You can see from the top of this vantage, you have just a spectacular view of New York.

FM: From here, a large triangular lawn slopes down. Louis Kahn envisioned two corridors of linden trees on either side, converging on a small plaza, about 55 yards long and 25 yards wide. It would be topped by a sculpture of FDR. This plaza leads into what Kahn called a "room" – a partially open and partially enclosed space, surrounded on three sides by massive granite slabs, 6-feet-thick, 6-feet-wide and 12-feet high. They would be spaced an inch apart, letting in narrow beams of light. The "room" has no ceiling and no front wall. It opens to the south, focusing the view on the river itself, and both the UN and midtown on one side, and the Queens waterfront on the other. A few steps below The Room is another, smaller open space, at the tip of the tip, just above the water-line.

Roosevelt Memorial-- Colored pencil on yellow trace, 1973.

EOD: It’s a powerful sight -- not just s-i-g-h-t, but s-i-t-e -- that I do think has been sleeping for many, many years now. As New Yorkers, most of us have never been out to this site. We don’t really know it's here and it exists. I think this project would contribute immensely to giving this site back to New York .

FM: The proposal went through several stages of approval before being finalized in the early 1970s, and about a third of the projected 6-million-dollar budget was raised to build it. Then the city's fiscal crisis descended, and plans were shelved indefinitely. They were dusted off in 1994, when the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation invested a quarter-million dollars in grading the site for planting the landscaping and building the monument. Then the project stalled again. Today, this rough, mowed lawn is the only large space on South Point that is not overgrown.

EOD: A lot of the work has been done already. The project's been designed. The project's been specified. The quarries Kahn wanted to use are still open and operating . Here we are actually standing on the site that's been prepared to receive the finishes of the project. So it's actually remarkable how little remains to be done

FM: Formerly called "Blackwell's Island" and "Welfare Island," Roosevelt Island has been home to an insane asylum, city and state hospitals, and the detention center the city used before Riker’s Island. It has only had a high-rise residential neighborhood since the 1970's. Judith Berdy, president of the local historical society and author of a book on the island, has been here for most of that time. She’s eager for something to be done with South Point Park – but NOT the Kahn plan.

The UN is about 300 yards away from the tip of Roosevelt Island. (WNYC/Fred Mogul)

JB: I don't think that a large formal memorial is an appropriate use for the space. I just think that it's a beautiful area, and a passive park, something without major structures in it is much more what's needed at this time.

FM: The Trust for Public Land, a non-profit conservancy and consultant, was commissioned to design a park. Planners surveyed Roosevelt Island residents last fall, and showed them three different proposals for the site. The Kahn one was not popular, and is not incorporated into a preliminary plan for the park. Robin Lynn organizes architectural tours for the Municipal Art Society, and is a long-time resident of the island. She loves Louis Kahn’s work . She's made pilgrimages to see his buildings and saw what turned out to be his last public speech. But her loyalty is divided .

RL: It is about a community that's grown up in the thirty years since Kahn designed it, which should have a say in what happens down there. I know how I enjoy the space, and I feel a bit like a philistine and a bit torn, because I admire Kahn’s work so much. So I’m sortof of both minds.

FM: Resident M.E. Freeman has lived on the island for more than a quarter-century. She thinks her neighbors don’t understand that the 3-acre memorial space would be just a small part of the 13-acres that make up South Point. People would still get the neighborhood park they want, she says, but they should reach out to the broader community, not just focus on their own needs.

MF: I think that's being a little bit selfish. We have wonderful space on the island that is woefully under-utilized. We're part of the river. We’re part of the city, and I think that it's a wonderful opportunity for other people in the city to come and enjoy it, to use our tram and to see our island.

Roosevelt Island's smallpox museum (Tien Mao/

FM: A new exhibit opened this week at the Cooper Union. There are sketches, technical drawings, a model and a four-and-a-half-minute loop of a computer-animated 'walking tour.' Curator Steven Hillyer hopes Roosevelt Islanders and others will come to the exhibit and maybe even attend a special Cooper Union conference on Kahn's FDR memorial.

SH: I see this particular project as open and inviting. It is an experience of being outside in a controlled environment, but still being able to experience the open view of New York City.

FM: Kahn collapsed and died at Penn Station, on March 17, 1974. Notes and drawings for the memorial were on his sketchpad at the time. In one stream-of-consciousness scribble, Kahn mused, quote, "A work of art is the truth of a life it creates." But many people on Roosevelt Island are not sure they want art, truth and the lives of Franklin Roosevelt and Louis Kahn in their backyard. They just want to replace the weeds and mounds with a usable park and unobstructed views.

(Archival images courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission)

» The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
» Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation
» Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute
» History of Roosevelt Island