Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Dedicated 1997, modified 2001

Designer, Lawrence Halprin

There are many Americans with many monuments dedicated to them.  The number of monuments itself is not a measure of any figure’s actual historical importance, so much as the compulsion of groups later on to justify themselves by lionizing particular forbears.  The apologists of the confederacy make a particular mark here.  Based solely on number of public monuments to then, Robert E. Lee would seem to be among the most consequential people in all American history.  Even more astonishing, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave merchant cum Confederate general cum Ku Klux Klan founder, would be far more significant than the three presidents from his home state of Tennessee put together, with far fewer monuments dedicated to them.

All monuments reflect specific aspects of a historical figure’s life.  But who has the right to decide what to represent?  And what if the historical figure himself disagrees?  That is the particular question of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.  The FDR memorial covers more than 7 acres, making it the largest single monument on the Mall in area.  On which account, nothing could be more unlike the small single stone block FDR himself stipulated as what he wanted: modest, “plain without ornamentation”, and made of any old stone “limestone or granite or whatnot.”  In 1965, this very memorial was erected in the spot FDR had asked for, not on the Mall, but a small green lawn next to the sidewalk of Pennsylvania Ave. by the National Archives.  The sheer contrast in size (and related matters of comparative expenditures, effort etc.) between these two illustrates vividly the yawning gap between private and public commemoration.  Even more, it puts on display the very process of monument making

According to its designer, the FDR Memorial is not about the man whose name it bears.  Instead, it is “a way of communicating to this country what he stood for.”   But who gets to decide that?  And what if, as this monument vividly illustrates, we don’t all agree?

A product of the 1990’s, the FDR Memorial is the culmination of a design process that flirted with commemorating the progressive president with actual modernist imagery, in a way quite unusual for Washington’s tradition-minded mandarins.  The eventual built monument itself is distinct from others on the Mall.  Unlike the signifying structures that focus most monuments, the FDR Memorial is more journey than destination.  Designed by a landscape architect, it is a pleasant expanse that requires strolling through rather than standing in awe.  The memorial is divided into four parts corresponding to FDR’s four terms as president, each clearly identified by an inscription in the paving stones.  The viewer thus walks through symbolic landscapes devoted to Roosevelt’s presidency from the Great Depression through World War II.  Elaborate, inventive stone treatments, water elements, sculptures and inscriptions tell a story of the president and the nation he guided.  The sculptures were commissioned from some of the country’s leading sculptors, notably George Segal.  As all too often when important artists do government commissions, the results lack the edge of their greatest works, tamed by the need to fit committee stipulations and overtly didactic purposes.   Yet they also manage to be more than conventional for the genre and truer to the monument’s modernist heritage.  Particularly striking in this regard are the works by Robert Graham commemorating FDR’s numerous employment programs.

What image of FDR is presented by this monument?  It is shot through with his noble words, some of which can sound especially poignant today. Among other things, FDR emerges as an unwilling military leader.  The only words of his that are inscribed in two different places are “I hate war”, part of a longer passage empathetically describing its horrors and effects on men, women and children.   However, very nearby on the Mall, the World War II memorial includes a portion of FDR’s Pearl Harbor speech, a call to merciless battle.  There FDR states “the American people, in their righteous might, will win through absolute victory.”   Of course, both of these are FDR’s actual words, and part of his complex career.  But no monument tells the whole story, it is a history fragmented as different monuments clearly work to remake their own stories to fit their particular representations of history’s makers.

Even more directly, FDR himself appears twice in this memorial, most notably in a larger-than-life size bronze sculpture, seated with one leg extending from the cape draped around him.  His famed Scottish terrier Fala sits alert at his side.  This colossal image of FDR is the monument’s most direct address to the long history of presidential image-making, closely related to the colossal image of Lincoln enshrined in the Lincoln Memorial nearby.  Both figures are seated and looking over the heads of spectators, sharing a founder’s radiance and profundity.  The statue of FDR is almost the only thing in the entire monument that must be looked up to, as it alone is placed on a level distinctly above that of the viewing pavement.

But if FDR’s image almost aspires to be timeless, its present-day audience has had its own impact. Beside cape and dog, another FDR trademark is absent, his cigarette in its long, slim holder.  Held at a jaunty angle in his smiling visage, it was a trace of his optimism that held up a people through war and depression.  Common as this may have been in the period pictured, it is now excised.  But if what was common then is now covered up, what was very much covered up in FDR’s time is now evident in the monument: the far more consequential matter of FDR’s disability.  He suffered a permanent lower-body paralysis at age 39, which made unaided movement almost impossible.  During his lifetime, great pains were taken to hide this condition from FDR’s public image, in part by tacit agreement by news media.

This same past tendency is evident in the FDR monument’s image, in which the seated man is covered by a cape that hangs down to (and even beyond) the floor on which he is seated.   His body is largely hidden.  But others, outside the official circle of monument designers, saw FDR’s struggle with his disability in another way: as an inspiration.  Disability advocates seized on the “normalized” image of FDR, and successfully led a campaign to add another sculptural effigy to the monument, this time of the president seated visibly on a wheelchair.

Though controversial particularly to some conservative critics, four years after its initial dedication this new sculpture was added to the memorial.  It is somewhat awkwardly placed at the front before the areas representing FDR’s presidential terms, in what the newly-made inscription describes as a “prologue.”  There FDR sits alone on his wheelchair in a largely unadorned forecourt, accompanied only by a quotation from his wife Eleanor about his physical struggle.

This newer image of FDR is now the first thing a viewer sees when visiting the monument.  Compared to the more grandiose later one, it is smaller, now on a merely human scale, and down to earth, on the same pavement as the viewer.  FDR’s face is now a mask, his eyes hidden behind the  glasses he always wore (except when being formally portrayed).  This is clearly a different image of one of our greatest presidents, now vulnerable and removed from the record of his glories.  Yet, as a park ranger told me, it is this wheelchair-bound Roosevelt, not the magisterial one inside, that viewers spend far more time seeing and accompanying in the photos they take.