Original FDR Memorial

Designer, Eric Gugier


This is a monument of extreme simplicity, which explains itself in detail in a plaque by its side. It states:

“In September 1941 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called his friend, Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter, to the White House and asked the justice to remember the wish he then expressed:

“If any memorial is erected to me, I know exactly what I should like it to be. I should like it to consist of a block about the size of this (putting his hand on his desk) and placed in the center of that green plot in front of the archives building. I don’t care what it is made of, whether limestone or granite or whatnot, but I want it plain without any ornamentation, with the simple carving, “In Memory of _______________’”.

A small group of living associates of the president, on April 12, 1965, the twentieth anniversary of his death, fulfilled his wish by providing and dedicating this modest memorial.”

This monument is indeed modest, though it is white Vermont marble rather than the slightly more austere stones requested by the president. It fits inconspicuously on the grounds of the National Archives, a small addition to the vast stone façade and grounds of the building. The names of the friends who supported it are anonymous, sealed in a container inside the monument.

But this simple monument highlights a complicated question about monuments: who decides on them?  Does a president have the right to exclusively monumentalize himself in a public space? From almost as soon as he died, in 1945, there had been a movement to create a monument to FDR. From the early 1960’s, a potential site on the Mall had been fixed upon, and a series of designs had been whittled down to a finalist, a striking modernist monument consisting of a series of 130-foot long slabs with quotations from FDR. The Roosevelt family had publically objected to it and Washington’s Commission of Fine Arts (a board of art and architecture specialists who police the Mall for aesthetic harmony) ultimately rejected the design.

The National Archives building was the first major governmental building in Washington designed by John Russell Pope. Deigned “this temple of our history” it was the first of a series of precise, ornate neo-classical builidngs that proliferated during FDR’s presidency, culminating with the Jefferson Memorial, also designed by Pope. These buildings still embody the conservative, traditionally-minded aesthetic of official Washington. Thus the plot in front of the archives building that FDR requested for his monument, had been created during his presidency. He ultimately chose to join the architectural and decorative ensemble that he was instrumental in creating.

But the plan for a larger FDR memorial continued, of course, so today there are two actual monuments to him in two different locations. He is not the only such figure in the monumental landscape of Washington, DC to be dually represented, there’s also Lincoln, for instance.  The public image of FDR, perhaps the most consequential president of the 20th century, is thus one that he placed a mark on, but is larger than him or his family, and is only one of a variety of images he holds in public memory.

The New York Times’s coverage of the dedication of the FDR monument (4 April 1965, 60) quotes the president’s son, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. on the modern design, calling it “not in keeping with my father’s rather classical tastes in architecture.” But he also acknowledged that his family would not try to halt construction of the larger monument, keeping private interests separate from public processes. In this, Roosevelt’s children were more magnanimous than other more recent scions of famous politicians (like that Eisenhower family), a matter which bedevils monument building in Washington to this day.