Kahn’s Memorial to FDR Finally Finds Home in East River

Louis Kahn
Architect Louis Kahn in 1973. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park/Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania via Bloomberg

The four-acre Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park finally completes a memorial to the 32nd U.S. president -- almost four decades after architect Louis Kahn finished the designs.

The park brings fantastic life to the long-neglected site at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, the narrow stretch of land in the East River that once housed lunatics and chronic-disease sufferers before luring others to chunky gray highrises with spectacular views.

I traveled there by subway and an aerial tram that glides above the river. A 10-minute walk (or a 25-cent shuttle bus) to the memorial takes you past the recently opened South Point Park and the ruins of a 19th-century smallpox hospital. Manhattan rises to the west as an intricately variegated wall of buildings.

The Four Freedoms Park, which opens on Oct. 24, is more than a pleasurable promenade. It pays subtle and dignified homage to the president who guided the U.S. through the Great Depression and World War II.

William vanden Heuvel, 82, who has worked for Roosevelt family foundations since the project’s inception, walked me up the monumental stair at the entrance.

Bookended by sloping granite slabs, it rises just 12 feet to the top of a massive berm and evokes the Romantic Classicism of the French Enlightenment, which was much concerned with funerary grandeur and the eternal.

Floating Bust

The top of the stair opens to a tidy downward-sloping lawn symmetrically lined by linden trees that delicately screen the city views. The lawn culminates in a small plaza, where a bust depicting a serene Roosevelt appears to float within a granite niche. (The larger-than-life bronze was cast from a head sculpted in 1933 by Jo Davidson and selected by Kahn.)

The wall surrounding the bust forms one side of a roofless room, evoking an unfinished classical temple. It’s made from 36-ton, 6-foot-square granite blocks and is paved in matching stone. The high sides leave you in a calm, austere space that frames the sky overhead and the swirling river waters winding their way to the sea.

Kahn drew up the design in 1973, rendering it with soft charcoal on yellow tracing paper. He had readied it for construction in 1974, but New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a prime mover of the project, became vice president to Gerald Ford and got distracted by mightier demands.

City Broke

Neither could Kahn depend on Mayor John Lindsay, another key supporter, as the city was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Then Kahn died of a heart attack in a public bathroom in New York’s Pennsylvania Station at age 73.

Those events derailed the project but it never died. Vanden Heuvel decided to push for construction in 2005 after the documentary film “My Architect,” by Kahn’s son, Nathaniel, rekindled interest.

The New York firm Mitchell/Giurgola Architects LLP brought Kahn’s drawings up to date. Fred Eychaner of the Chicago-based Alphawood Foundation made a timely grant, then added $10 million when construction began.

With other private gifts and contributions from New York city and state, the project is just $1 million short of its $54 million fundraising goal.

Building a 38-year-old design essentially unaltered is unheard of. Everyone’s architecture dates -- except Kahn’s.

Greatest Works

His greatest works, including the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences, in La Jolla, California, and the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, have only grown in stature over the decades.

Kahn was an unabashed Modernist, but he sought to marry contemporary techniques to the deeply emotional qualities of ancient monuments: an evocative silence, a primordial serenity, our sense that battered old brick walls could speak to us.

People may be disappointed in the Four Freedoms Park precisely because it doesn’t provide the emotionally cathartic narrative in stone and bronze (like the confused Roosevelt memorial in Washington) we’ve come to expect.

Kahn asks you to stop and think.

Pause to read the passage carved in stone from Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, written in the months leading up to World War II.

Human Rights

Vanden Heuvel told me that those 97 words helped shape the Atlantic Charter the U.S. signed with Britain before the war and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The words guided the formation of the United Nations, which is prominently visible from the park.

A visit needn’t be dutiful. Drink in the views, especially along the waterside promenade that wraps the earth mound. Enjoy the chugging barges, and gaze on a rocky islet where cormorants dry their wings and seals occasionally sun.

Kahn has captured an essence of Roosevelt -- and of New York City.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater, Hephzibah Anderson books.

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