Architect Louis Kahn and the Memorial’s Design

“I feel strongly that [the architect] should be Louis Kahn, whose work has won such world-wide recognition that Ada Louise Huxtable recently termed him ‘the dean of American architects.’ Deanship aside, his work has been innovative and often poetic, his buildings evoke ancient forms newly seen in modern materials, and also, most importantly, he remembers FDR with insight and reverence.”

So wrote William Walton, an artist and influential chair from 1963 to 1971 of the United States Commission of Fine Arts, in his December 1972 report to the New York Urban Development Corporation on a proposed Roosevelt memorial for Welfare Island in New York City’s East River.

Kahn received the commission early in 1973. He was, and still is, acknowledged as a master of twentieth-century architecture. Kahn created some of the seminal works that define modernism: Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut; the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California; the Capital City in Bangladesh; Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; and the library at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.




“I had this thought that a memorial should be a Room and a Garden. That's all I had. Why did I want a Room and a Garden? I just chose it to be the point of departure. The Garden is somehow a personal nature, a personal kind of control of nature, a gathering of nature. And the Room was the beginning of architecture. I had this sense, you see, and the Room wasn't just architecture, but was an extension of self.”

Louis Kahn on his design of FDR Four Freedoms Park,
in a lecture given at the Pratt Institute, 1973

His design of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park combines the monolithic forms of ancient Egypt and Greece with refined modern minimalism: A hundred-foot-wide entry stair, a triangular central lawn, two allées of linden trees, and angled walls all direct visitors to Kahn’s “Room,” enclosed on three sides by thirty-six-ton rectangular granite columns. There one reads an inscription of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech and, from the park’s unique location on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, takes in spectacular views of the United Nations, the East River, and the Manhattan skyline.

For Kahn, the memorial would be a place for inspired use. His pure, abstract design honors Roosevelt’s vision of a world founded on four universal freedoms, a world that Roosevelt saw as “attainable in our own time and generation.”

On March 17, 1974, while passing through New York City’s Penn Station, Kahn died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-three. In his briefcase was a rendering of his completed design for FDR Four Freedoms Park. “It is Kahn’s last monument,” architecture critic Michael J. Lewis observed in 2005, “and the ripest, a grand summation of half a century of thought about commemoration and remembrance.”

Creating Franklin D. Roosevelt
Four Freedoms Park:
The Persistence of an Idea

Scroll Down to Explore the History:

A New Space for a Timeless Vision

Roosevelt Island and the FDR Memorial: A Timeline

Architect Louis Kahn and the Memorial’s Design

Sculptor Jo Davidson and the Portrait-Head of the President

Constructing the Memorial

A New Space for
A Timeless Vision

In the autumn of 2012, Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park opened on Roosevelt Island, welcoming the first of hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world. The park is a tribute to the life and vision of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a son of New York and a beloved president who, with great courage in troubled times, expanded and preserved the democratic way of life.

The creation of FDR Four Freedoms Park, first conceived in the early 1970s, was a project of forty years. Its design was the last major work of Louis Kahn, one of the most celebrated architects of the twentieth century.

In its unique setting on a small island in the midst of America’s largest city, this memorial is a place to encounter the essential human freedoms FDR defined in his famous 1941 speech—freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Roosevelt Island and the FDR Memorial: A Timeline

1828

The City of New York purchases Blackwell’s Island in the East River as a site for prisons and hospitals.

1921

Blackwell’s Island is renamed Welfare Island. Over the next decades, its public institutions fall out of use and their buildings decay.

1968

New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay forms the Welfare Island Planning and Development Committee to study redevelopment of the island. The committee, which includes architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, recommends residential development.

1969

In October, Johnson and Burgee release their master plan for Welfare Island, calling for a mixed-use development with housing for twenty thousand low- and moderate-income residents, in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled The Island Nobody Knows.

1970

The Four Freedoms Foundation initiates conversations with New York City and New York State to plan a memorial for Franklin D. Roosevelt in New York. In an editorial the New York Times advocates for a Roosevelt memorial on Welfare Island and proposes the entire island be renamed in President Roosevelt’s honor.

1971

In June, construction begins on Welfare Island’s “new town in town.” The development is a project of the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC), a public-benefit corporation formed in 1968 to address urban blight and a severe housing shortage across the state.

1973

Architect Louis I. Kahn enters into a contract with the New York State UDC to design a Roosevelt memorial for Welfare Island. On September 24, city and state officials and members of the Roosevelt family gather on the island to officially rename it Franklin D. Roosevelt Island and view an early model of Kahn’s design.

1974

In January, Kahn’s architecture firm ships a final, approved design to New York. Kahn dies unexpectedly in March of a heart attack in Pennsylvania Station in New York.

“Louis Kahn was an architect to whom stones spoke, spaces ‘wanted to be,’ and history was now.”

Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, in an appraisal of Kahn’s work shortly after his death, New York Times, March 20, 1974.

1975

New York City undergoes a fiscal crisis and the memorial project is put on hold.

1981

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York reintroduces to Congress “a bill to establish a national memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt . . . to be built on Roosevelt Island in the city of New York according to the plans . . . prepared by the late, preeminent American architect, Louis I. Kahn.”

1985

New York governor Mario M. Cuomo establishes the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial Commission to assess the feasibility of realizing Kahn’s design. However, despite strong efforts, the project does not move forward.

1992

A retrospective exhibition of Kahn’s work, Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture, is held at the Museum of Modern Art. Calling the Roosevelt memorial design “one of the noblest unbuilt projects in New York,” a New York Times editorial advocates for its construction.

1994

The memorial site is cleared, graded, sculpted, and compacted to the specifications of the Kahn design in an attempt to initiate construction, but due to a lack of funds, the memorial is not completed. In the following years, developers advance a plan to build a hotel and conference center on the public land.

2005

An exhibition, Coming to Light: The Louis I. Kahn Monument to Franklin D. Roosevelt for New York City, is held at The Cooper Union. Ambassador William vanden Heuvel announces that the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute of which he is founder and chair will endeavor to raise the funds required to build the Four Freedoms Park as designed by Kahn.

2008

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, LLC, is established to raise the funds to build the park.

2010

On March 29, construction begins. Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, LLC, has raised $35 million of the expected $50 million cost of building the memorial, including public funds from the city and the state, seed money from The Reed Foundation, and a $10 million gift from the Alphawood Foundation.

2012

On October 17, national, state, and city leaders as well as friends of the park gather to dedicate Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. A week later, on October 24, 2012, it opens to the public.

“That Kahn’s plan survived periodic calls to privatize the government-owned property... proves the benefit of resisting short-term financial imperatives. In the end the value of the project goes far beyond dollars and cents. It gives New York nothing less than a new spiritual heart.”

Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, September 13, 2012

Sculptor Jo Davidson and the Portrait-Head of the President

Not long after he became president in March 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, invited renowned sculptor Jo Davidson (1883-1952) to the White House to complete a bust of her son. In December 1933 Davidson arrived in Washington from his studio in Paris.

While Davidson had spent most of his career sculpting visionaries like Albert Einstein, Gertrude Stein, and Walt Whitman, for Davidson, sculpting Roosevelt took on a deeper meaning. “President Roosevelt won me completely with his charm, his beautiful voice and his freedom from constraint. He had an unshakable faith in man,” Davidson recalled in his autobiography Between Sittings. “In Roosevelt’s tremendous relief program, the artist too was included, and the influence of the WPA [Works Progress Administration] projects was tremendous.”

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Constructing the Memorial

It took two and a half years to build Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. Workers broke ground on March 29, 2010. Construction was broken into three phases. The first phase of construction built the Room, the second established the Garden, and the third created the monumental stair and copper beech trees at the memorial's entrance.

Stone Quarrying

All granite in the park was quarried in Mount Airy, North Carolina. The quarry is the world’s largest open-faced quarry, measuring half a square mile. A total of 12,100 tons (roughly 24 million pounds) of granite was quarried to produce 7,700 tons (roughly 15 million pounds) of dimensioned granite.

The solid granite blocks used to make the Room measure six by six by twelve feet and weigh thirty-six tons. All Room stones were trucked to New Jersey, then barged to the construction site and offloaded with an anchored crane.

Excavation

The original southern end of the island was just south of the former Smallpox Hospital, also known as the Renwick Ruin. Landfilling began in the late 1950s and early 1960s with debris from on-island demolition. Most of the subsequent fill, which was deposited between 1970 and 1974, came from excavation on the northern end of the island for the New York City water supply system.

In his memorial design Kahn specified a riprap edge made from the granite gneiss on the island. “Riprap” is the term used to define a rock barrier that armors the edge of an island to protect it from erosion.

Stone Setting

The project required five different types of cranes and lifts and roughly one hundred trained stone setters to set all of the North Carolina granite blocks.

One hundred ninety individual stones make up the Room, seventy of which are monumental in size. The process of repositioning (or “tripping”) a granite block of this size from a horizontal to a vertical position has not changed since the construction of the pyramids in ancient Egypt: Stones are set in large sand pits where they can be turned slowly without damaging their corners or edges. The Room’s columns were set with one-inch-wide slots between each stone, and the east and west embankment slabs were handset on a steep thirty-two-degree incline.

Landscaping

There are one hundred twenty littleleaf linden trees and five copper beech trees planted within the park. When planted the lindens were fifteen to eighteen years old and the beeches were thirty years old.

Inscription

The John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island, laid out the text and designed the V-cut letterforms for the inscription from Roosevelt’s famous 1941 Four Freedoms speech, and hand-carved the inscription on site. The John Stevens Shop also created inscriptions for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, the World War II Memorial, and the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC, among many others.

Creating Franklin D. Roosevelt
Four Freedoms Park:
The Persistence of an Idea

A New Space for
A Timeless Vision


In the autumn of 2012, Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park opened on Roosevelt Island, welcoming the first of hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world. The park is a tribute to the life and vision of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a son of New York and a beloved president who, with great courage in troubled times, expanded and preserved the democratic way of life.

The creation of FDR Four Freedoms Park, first conceived in the early 1970s, was a project of forty years. Its design was the last major work of Louis Kahn, one of the most celebrated architects of the twentieth century.

In its unique setting on a small island in the milliondst of America’s largest city, this memorial is a place to encounter the essential human freedoms FDR defined in his famous 1941 speech—freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Roosevelt Island and the FDR Memorial:
A Timeline

1828

The City of New York purchases Blackwell’s Island in the East River as a site for prisons and hospitals.

An 1870 New York City map shows Blackwell’s Island studded with public institutions, from the municipal lunatic asylum at its north end to the smallpox hospital on its southern tip. In his How the Other Half Lives (1890), the reformer Jacob Riis would write of Blackwell's Island, “The commonest keeper soon learns to pick out almost at sight the 'cases' that will leave the penitentiary, the workhouse, the almshouse, only to return again and again, each time more hopeless, to spend their wasted lives in the bondage of the island.”

1921

Blackwell’s Island is renamed Welfare Island. Over the next decades, its public institutions fall out of use and their buildings decay.

1968

New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay forms the Welfare Island Planning and Development Committee to study redevelopment of the island. The committee, which includes architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, recommends residential development.

Architects Phillip Johnson and John Burgee worked closely on many projects, including the redevelopment of Welfare Island. Here, the two architects stand in front of a model of the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture building, 1984.
University of Houston

1969

In October, Johnson and Burgee release their master plan for Welfare Island, calling for a mixed-use development with housing for twenty thousand low- and moderate-income residents, in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled The Island Nobody Knows.

An architectural rendering from the catalog for the exhibition The Island Nobody Knows depicting the planned community proposed for the island in the East River. “The customary procedure now,” wrote New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, “is for New Yorkers to attack the plan violently in the most absolute terms possible.”

1970

The Four Freedoms Foundation initiates conversations with New York City and New York State to plan a memorial for Franklin D. Roosevelt in New York. In an editorial the New York Times advocates for a Roosevelt memorial on Welfare Island and proposes the entire island be renamed in President Roosevelt’s honor.

1971

In June, construction begins on Welfare Island’s “new town in town.” The development is a project of the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC), a public-benefit corporation formed in 1968 to address urban blight and a severe housing shortage across the state.

1973

Architect Louis I. Kahn enters into a contract with the New York State UDC to design a Roosevelt memorial for Welfare Island. On September 24, city and state officials and members of the Roosevelt family gather on the island to officially rename it Franklin D. Roosevelt Island and view an early model of Kahn’s design.

At the dedication of Roosevelt Island, held on the island’s southern tip, New York City Mayor John Lindsay holds the plaque that memorializes the island’s renaming for Roosevelt. “Just across the East River," said Lindsay, "are the United Nations headquarters and the public housing projects of the New Deal—continuing testimony to Roosevelt’s foresight, wisdom, and concern for mankind…Today, we need more than ever to reclaim the New Deal from the pages of the history books.” Roosevelt Island Historical Society

At a cocktail reception held at Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence, following the renaming of Roosevelt Island, Mayor John Lindsay and others socialize in front of an early model of the Kahn-designed Roosevelt memorial. Roosevelt Island Historical Society

1974

In January, Kahn’s architecture firm ships a final, approved design to New York. Kahn dies unexpectedly in March of a heart attack in Pennsylvania Station in New York.

“Louis Kahn was an architect to whom stones spoke, spaces ‘wanted to be,’ and history was now.”

Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, in an appraisal of Kahn’s work shortly after his death, New York Times, March 20, 1974.

1975

New York City undergoes a fiscal crisis and the memorial project is put on hold.

1981

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York reintroduces to Congress “a bill to establish a national memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt . . . to be built on Roosevelt Island in the city of New York according to the plans . . . prepared by the late, preeminent American architect, Louis I. Kahn.”

1985

New York governor Mario M. Cuomo establishes the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial Commission to assess the feasibility of realizing Kahn’s design. However, despite strong efforts, the project does not move forward.

1992

A retrospective exhibition of Kahn’s work, Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture, is held at the Museum of Modern Art. Calling the Roosevelt memorial design “one of the noblest unbuilt projects in New York,” a New York Times editorial advocates for its construction.

This catalogue, Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture, accompanied the Museum of Modern Art’s 1992 Kahn exhibition. Authored by David Brownlee and David De Long, it is considered one of the most authoritative books on Kahn.
Rizzoli

1994

The memorial site is cleared, graded, sculpted, and compacted to the specifications of the Kahn design in an attempt to initiate construction, but due to a lack of funds, the memorial is not completed. In the following years, developers advance a plan to build a hotel and conference center on the public land.

2005

An exhibition, Coming to Light: The Louis I. Kahn Monument to Franklin D. Roosevelt for New York City, is held at The Cooper Union. Ambassador William vanden Heuvel announces that the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute of which he is founder and chair will endeavor to raise the funds required to build the Four Freedoms Park as designed by Kahn.

2008

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, LLC, is established to raise the funds to build the park.

2010

On March 29, construction begins. Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, LLC, has raised $35 million of the expected $50 million cost of building the memorial, including public funds from the city and the state, seed money from The Reed Foundation, and a $10 million gift from the Alphawood Foundation.

Construction began on March 29, 2010 at the southernmost point of the island. Brennan

2012

On October 17, national, state, and city leaders as well as friends of the park gather to dedicate Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. A week later, on October 24, 2012, it opens to the public.

At the FDR Four Freedoms Park ribbon-cutting ceremony, from left to right: Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Park Chairman William vanden Heuvel, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, President Bill Clinton, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., and Reverend Charles Kramer. “As we look out on this bright new day,” Clinton told the assembled guests, “we are close to the U.N., which [Franklin D. Roosevelt], more than any other soul, created. We are also close to ground zero, which reminds us that we are not free from fear.” Diane Bondareff

“That Kahn’s plan survived periodic calls to privatize the government-owned property... proves the benefit of resisting short-term financial imperatives. In the end the value of the project goes far beyond dollars and cents. It gives New York nothing less than a new spiritual heart.”

Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, September 13, 2012

Photo: Iwan Baan



Architect Louis Kahn
and the Memorial’s Design

“I feel strongly that [the architect] should be Louis Kahn, whose work has won such world-wide recognition that Ada Louise Huxtable recently termed him ‘the dean of American architects.’ Deanship aside, his work has been innovative and often poetic, his buildings evoke ancient forms newly seen in modern materials, and also, most importantly, he remembers FDR with insight and reverence.”

So wrote William Walton, an artist and influential chair from 1963 to 1971 of the United States Commission of Fine Arts, in his December 1972 report to the New York Urban Development Corporation on a proposed Roosevelt memorial for Welfare Island in New York City’s East River.

Kahn received the commission early in 1973. He was, and still is, acknowledged as a master of twentieth-century architecture. Kahn created some of the seminal works that define modernism: Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut; the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California; the Capital City in Bangladesh; Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; and the library at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.


“I had this thought that a memorial should be a Room and a Garden. That's all I had. Why did I want a Room and a Garden? I just chose it to be the point of departure. The Garden is somehow a personal nature, a personal kind of control of nature, a gathering of nature. And the Room was the beginning of architecture. I had this sense, you see, and the Room wasn't just architecture, but was an extension of self.”
Louis Kahn on his design of FDR Four Freedoms Park, in a lecture given at the Pratt Institute, 1973

His design of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park combines the monolithic forms of ancient Egypt and Greece with refined modern minimalism: A hundred-foot-wide entry stair, a triangular central lawn, two allées of linden trees, and angled walls all direct visitors to Kahn’s “Room,” enclosed on three sides by thirty-six-ton rectangular granite columns. There one reads an inscription of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech and, from the park’s unique location on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, takes in spectacular views of the United Nations, the East River, and the Manhattan skyline.

For Kahn, the memorial would be a place for inspired use. His pure, abstract design honors Roosevelt’s vision of a world founded on four universal freedoms, a world that Roosevelt saw as “attainable in our own time and generation.”

On March 17, 1974, while passing through New York City’s Penn Station, Kahn died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-three. In his briefcase was a rendering of his completed design for FDR Four Freedoms Park. “It is Kahn’s last monument,” architecture critic Michael J. Lewis observed in 2005, “and the ripest, a grand summation of half a century of thought about commemoration and remembrance.”

Sculptor Jo Davidson and the Portrait-Head of the President

Not long after he became president in March 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, invited renowned sculptor Jo Davidson (1883-1952) to the White House to complete a bust of her son. In December 1933 Davidson arrived in Washington from his studio in Paris.

While Davidson had spent most of his career sculpting visionaries like Albert Einstein, Gertrude Stein, and Walt Whitman, for Davidson, sculpting Roosevelt took on a deeper meaning. “President Roosevelt won me completely with his charm, his beautiful voice and his freedom from constraint. He had an unshakable faith in man,” Davidson recalled in his autobiography Between Sittings. “In Roosevelt’s tremendous relief program, the artist too was included, and the influence of the WPA [Works Progress Administration] projects was tremendous.”

Constructing the Memorial
It took two and a half years to build Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. Workers broke ground on March 29, 2010. Construction was broken into three phases. The first phase of construction built the Room, the second established the Garden, and the third created the monumental stair and copper beech trees at the memorial's entrance.

Stone Quarrying
All granite in the park was quarried in Mount Airy, North Carolina. The quarry is the world’s largest open-faced quarry, measuring half a square mile. A total of 12,100 tons (roughly 24 million pounds) of granite was quarried to produce 7,700 tons (roughly 15 million pounds) of dimensioned granite.

The solid granite blocks used to make the Room measure six by six by twelve feet and weigh thirty-six tons. All Room stones were trucked to New Jersey, then barged to the construction site and offloaded with an anchored crane.

Excavation
The original southern end of the island was just south of the former Smallpox Hospital, also known as the Renwick Ruin. Landfilling began in the late 1950s and early 1960s with debris from on-island demolition. Most of the subsequent fill, which was deposited between 1970 and 1974, came from excavation on the northern end of the island for the New York City water supply system.

In his memorial design Kahn specified a riprap edge made from the granite gneiss on the island. “Riprap” is the term used to define a rock barrier that armors the edge of an island to protect it from erosion.

Stone Setting
The project required five different types of cranes and lifts and roughly one hundred trained stone setters to set all of the North Carolina granite blocks.

One hundred ninety individual stones make up the Room, seventy of which are monumental in size. The process of repositioning (or “tripping”) a granite block of this size from a horizontal to a vertical position has not changed since the construction of the pyramids in ancient Egypt: Stones are set in large sand pits where they can be turned slowly without damaging their corners or edges. The Room’s columns were set with one-inch-wide slots between each stone, and the east and west embankment slabs were handset on a steep thirty-two-degree incline.

Landscaping
There are one hundred twenty littleleaf linden trees and five copper beech trees planted within the park. When planted the lindens were fifteen to eighteen years old and the beeches were thirty years old.

Inscription
The John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island, laid out the text and designed the V-cut letterforms for the inscription from Roosevelt’s famous 1941 Four Freedoms speech, and hand-carved the inscription on site. The John Stevens Shop also created inscriptions for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, the World War II Memorial, and the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC, among many others.

An Accompanying Historical Resource For Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park