This morning, I was lucky to be able to attend the dedication ceremony of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island off of Manhattan. The memorial was a long time coming. The island was named for FDR in 1973, and architect Louis Kahn whipped up a memorial for the southern tip, but then he dropped dead of a heart attack, and then Ford told New York to drop dead, too. So it didn’t get made.
But nine years ago, Kahn’s son Nathaniel, who was just a kid when his dad died, made a elegaic documentary called My Architect, which was a monument in film to his father, who made monuments in stone. The film was so good (it’s one of my favorite documentaries) that high society wags picked up the dusty Louis Kahn plans again and finished the job. In a way, the monument is as much to Louis Kahn as it is to FDR, as proven by how many times each of the speakers invoked both of their names. Former President Bill Clinton, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Tom Brokaw, Ambassador William vanden Huevel, Mayor Michel Bloomberg. All nodded to Louie. It’s odd: The son’s impetus to memorialize his architect father is what led us to memorialize our president. From small questions rise large deeds.
One guest told me another reason the rich came out to donate $34 million of the $53 million price tag: There was also a rival plan to build a hotel or another tower here, so backing this low-lying granite park meant they wouldn’t lose their East River views. The ceremony today let us know that, no, most of the reason this park was here is because America loves freedom, in particular the Four Freedoms that Roosevelt coined. Freedom of expression is one; as a member of the press, I was allowed to attend, but had to stand in a pen off to the side. As you can see, it didn’t hurt my ability to participate.
The park has more than a twinge of early ’70s brutalism to it, and had Kahn lived, I would like to think he would have made it a little more inviting. After all, the other FDR monument on the Tidal Basin in Washington even has a sculpture of FDR’s beloved dog, Fala. Here in New York, the disembodied head of Franklin Delano stares down the granite bowling alley of his namesake park, daring your approach like the Great and Powerful Oz. (And this from someone who loves what FDR did.)
At least it has a view of the United Nations, which he helped found. And also the FDR Drive, which he would want nothing to do with. And Roosevelt Island, which used to be where New York stashed its insane and infirm.
Audra McDonald was supposed to sing. She called in sick. So we got a president, two governors, two mayors, an anchor, an ambassador, and a Master of the Universe (that was Henry Kissinger, who didn’t speak). But no diva. Unless you count Kissinger.
A gallery of images comes after the jump:
Click any photo to make it larger.