Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is the newest of Washington, D.C.’s presidential memorials. The memorial, which stretches across 7.5 acres on the banks of the Tidal Basin, opened in 1997. Designed with open-air rooms, one for each of FDR’s four presidential terms and featuring water and waterfalls as important design elements, the memorial honors the nation’s 32nd president.

Walking though the Lawrence Halprin-designed memorial is a bit like walking through a U.S. history book open to pages covering the mid-20th Century.

FDR’s presidency (1933-1945) began when the nation was paralyzed by the Great Depression and ended with a no-longer-isolationist United States fighting a World War and looking to the planned United Nations as the means to a peaceful future. His administration’s programs, including Social Security, changed American society. Add to that his leadership on the world stage, and it can be argued that Franklin Roosevelt was the most influential president of the last century.

The work of several artists, including Leonard Baskin, Neil Estern, Robert Graham, and George Segal, helps to illustrate each presidential term.

Segals Hunger

Segal’s Hunger, which shows five men standing in a breadline, along with his Rural Couple, exemplify the hardships of the Depression.
A third Segal work, The Fireside Chat, offers hope as FDR’s New Deal programs provided employment and helped the nation to begin its economic recovery. “My father had a job because of Roosevelt,” is a remark that is frequently heard as one walks through the memorial.

FDR Words

Roosevelt’s words from speeches, addresses, and fireside chats are carved in the walls throughout the memorial. These quotes as well as the transformations of the moving water—quiet pools to chaotic waterfalls—mark the changing years. The accomplishments of the New Deal, shown in room 2, give way to the horrors of a world war that America joined in his third term, as depicted in room 3.

Roosevelt did not live to see the end of WWII. He died in April 1945, leaving Harry Truman to complete his fourth term.

Room 4 underscores FDR’s legacy; it includes Leonard Baskin’s bas-relief titled “The Funeral Cortège” and Neil Estern’s statue of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt standing near the United Nations emblem—Eleanor became a delegate to the UN in December of 1945 after FDR’s death.
The memorial’s design was not universally accepted due to the inclusion of Estern’s statue of a seated Roosevelt with his dog, Fala.

Disability rights advocates objected that the sculpture hid any indication that the president was in a wheelchair—FDR lost the use of his legs after contracting polio in 1921. The National Organization on Disability raised the money to commission and install a statue of FDR in a wheelchair. The new statue, by Graham, was added to the front of the memorial in 2001.

Should you be near the National Archives Building, look at the corner of 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue for a small plaque and office-desk-size memorial. Roosevelt once told his friend Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter that if people insisted on building a memorial to him, it should be no bigger than the size of his desk. A group of the president’s friends obliged him by installing and dedicating the plaque on the 20th anniversary of his death.

Other Presidential Memorials in Washington include the Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.

by Katie Calvert