I apologize for the informality, but the next person I hear call it the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in actual conversation will be the first. It's always just the FDR Memorial, or simply FDR.
And I find that quite appropriate. Like his compatriot across the Tidal Basin, FDR was a complex character, a man born to the upper crust but who saw himself the spokesman of the people. But in many ways he eschewed the formality of the class he was born to. Oh sure, he wore the prince nez glasses, and used the funny looking cigarette holder, and no one has ever confused him with a rag to riches story. But while certainly not humble, he often ducked the more personal trappings of his exalted status, even to the point of asking for a low key memorial.
That's right, this is very much not the Memorial FDR wanted. In fact, it's not even his first. According to his friend, the humorously named Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, FDR had very specific ideas about how to be remembered:
If any memorial should be erected to me, I know exactly what I should like it to be. I should like it 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 ...."But you don't really get to pick how you are remembered after you die, for good or ill, so while the "Real" FDR memorial was built as he directed (shown above), the one we now refer to as such was completed on the Tidal Basin in 1997.
Unfortunately, if you've been following our little "tour" we are heading backwards in time, but it still works. This to me is a great Memorial to guide folks through. It's full of interesting nuances and quirks that spark interest in FDR in a way not seen in the other Presidential Memorials. The Memorial is divided into four plazas or "rooms", each dealing with a different term of his Presidency. Will discuss this as if we came into the front of the Memorial:
- The first area is not one of the four "rooms". Labeled as "Prologue", it is a result of a controversy following the design of the Memorial. Lacking any overt representation of FDR's disability, many activists threatened to protest. The statue you see up front is a result of that discussion, clearly showing his use of a wheelchair. Whatever the artistic merits of its inclusion, the statue has become a favorite of schoolchildren, who often pose on his lap. It's a great display of a healthy, vibrant FDR who happened to be unable to walk.
- Moving on, you enter the first plaza, which is almost stark in it's simplicity. You are faced with a large, almost overwhelming waterfall, illustrating the scope of the Great Depression and the challenge he faced with the New Deal. Quotes, including the famous "Fear itself" one, surround the room.
- Continuing to the second plaza, we start to focus on the nuts and bolts of FDR's plan for recovery. We see a little of the human displacement of the Depression with the famous statue of the bread line. This is another favorite, with kids often squeezing in to get pics between the forlorn, hungry, out of work men. But you also see the first tendrils of hope, as we see a man listening to the radio, a depiction of one of FDR's Fireside Chats. Around the corner we have a series of reliefs of people back at work, picking fruit, painting, sculpting, industrial workers, and so on. And finally we see another great waterfall, this one broken up into terraces, evocative of the works of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The deluge is coming under control.
- We leave this plaza and move to his third term. The great national crisis has moved past the Depression and we start to confront the World War. The designers cleverly illustrate the destruction of the war in abstract means. You will see large blocks strewn about, as if they were ripped from the Memorial itself. Look back from where you came and contrast the finish of the walls. You will see that it is much rougher and less even. The focal water fountain matches the chaos of the surrounding design (and no, the fact that it's perpetually broken has no greater significance). The world is falling apart. I might note here my one quibble with the Memorial. You'll see here a quote beginning with "I hate war" etched on the wall. It very much mistakenly, in my opinion leaves the impression that FDR was a bit of a pacifist and sought to avoid engagement in the conflict overseas.
- Leaving that aside, we move to his fourth term. FDR died a bare 82 days after being inaugurated, so the plaza acknowledges this with the bas relief sculpture of the funeral procession in front of a still pool. The stillness, of course, represents the end of life. After this we see a statue of Eleanor, who, appropriately enough is acknowledged after her husbands death. In many ways, she came into her own then, serving, among other things as the U.S. Delegate to the newly formed United Nations. The final fountain serves as a conclusion to the narrative, with a large combination of water devices borrowing from the earlier fountains.
Once you're done taking it all in, and I encourage you to take your time, we'll finish our tour tomorrow with, in my opinion, the greatest of the Presidential Memorials. You know, the one on the back of the penny.