The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is dedicated to the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR was a central figure of the 20th century during a time of unprecedented economic crisis and world war. He is also the only US President to have been elected to more than two terms in office. The memorial chronicles FDR’s twelve years in office, from 1933 to 1945, through a series of sections designed to feel like rooms, spread out over 7.5 acres. Each room depicts one of FDR’s Presidential terms, and the historical events that took place during that time, through quotes, sculpture, and landscape elements. The memorial is built from South Dakota granite punctuated by waterfalls, alcoves and flowering Cherry Trees. The memorial was designed by famed landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and was completed in 1997.
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The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is open 24 hours a day, and National Park Service Rangers are on duty from 9:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. daily (except for Christmas Day) to answer questions. Rangers also provide interpretive programs every hour on the hour from 10am to 11pm.
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is fully handicap accessible. There is a vehicular drop off point on West Basin Drive and wheelchairs can be borrowed from the visitor’s center/bookstore near the entrance. There are also Braille captions throughout the memorial. Bathrooms are located behind the visitor’s center and near the south exit of the memorial (towards the Jefferson Memorial).
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial was conceived in 1974, and the design was chosen through a blind competition. Lawrence Halprin won the competition, but although he was awarded the commission that same year, it took Congress over 20 years to acquire the funds to build the memorial. A different memorial to FDR had been built and dedicated in 1965 at the northwest corner of the National Archives Building. That memorial, per Roosevelt’s request, is comprised of a single slab of marble no larger than his desk, with the following inscription: “IN MEMORY OF FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT 1882-1945”.
Lawrence Halprin, who had previously worked on the design of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco and the entire Bay Area Rapid Transit system , considered the FDR Memorial along the Tidal Basin to be the finest work of his career. Keeping in mind FDR’s own physical impairments, Halprin strongly considered accessibility in the design of the memorial. FDR was stricken with polio at age 39 and lost the use of his legs; he was wheelchair bound for his entire presidency. The memorial was the first to be built wheelchair accessible and includes a system of low ramps, tactile reliefs, and Braille writing.
There are a number of symbolic water features that change in size and volume as visitors move through the memorial. The waterfalls are intended to symbolize the increasing tumultuousness surrounding FDR’s presidency, marked by the Great Depression, World War II, and Roosevelt’s death in 1945. The stone walls also reflect these historical changes, becoming more rough hewn as visitors move through FDR’s four terms.
The memorial includes sculptures depicting notable imagery during FDR’s presidency, such as a bread line and fireside chat. There is also a sculpture of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt honoring her dedication to the United Nations, making the FDR Memorial the only Presidential memorial to include a First Lady. Finally, the memorial features 21 quotes carved into stone recounting passages from FDR’s most notable speeches and writings. As you move from room to room, note the inscriptions on the ground marking the transition from one Presidential term to the next.
To enter the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, begin at the visitor’s center on the north side off of West Basin Drive. With the visitor’s center on your left, you are standing in the Prologue Room. The Prologue Room was added to the memorial in 2001 to accommodate the statue to your right. This life size depiction of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his wheelchair was the result of a three year debate after the memorial was opened in 1997. Originally, Lawrence Halprin and the other memorial designers decided not to represent FDR in a wheelchair, since the President himself went to great lengths to hide his disability. However, the National Organization on Disability widely criticized the memorial for representing a historically incomplete picture of the President. Memorial officials first attempted to quell criticism by adding castors to the chair statue that you will see in the third room. That did not satisfy disability advocates, so the National Organization on Disability raised over 1.6 million dollars to fund the addition of the prologue room, which includes the statue depicting FDR clearly in his wheelchair, welcoming visitors to the memorial. Walk around the right side of the wall in front of you, and notice the bronze-cast Presidential Seal as you enter the first room of the memorial.
The first room in the FDR Memorial represents the Great Depression. Seven quotes addressing the Great Depression are inscribed into the surrounding walls, including FDR’s most famous quote “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” delivered on March 4th 1933 during his first inaugural address. During this speech, Roosevelt addressed the economic crisis, staggering unemployment rates, and foreign policy. His confident and direct oratory style gave American’s assurance during a time of extreme financial instability. Under that quote is a bronze relief depicting his inaugural parade. Continue through the memorial to room two; notice the inscription in the ground as you move into FDR’s second Presidential term.
The central focus of FDR’s second term was developing and executing the New Deal to bring the country out of economic turmoil. In this room, there are three scenes depicting the state of American citizens in the United States during the Great Depression. In front of you, against the large central wall, a rural farming family is depicted suffering from the effects of drought, dust bowls, and poverty. A bread line is also shown, representing the poverty and desperation of the working class during the Great Depression. Inscribed above the sculptures is the following quote from FDR’s second inaugural address: “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”
The sculpture to the right depicts a man listening to one of Roosevelt’s fireside chats. FDR gave thirty public addresses over radio between 1933 and 1944, communicating directly with the American public for the first time in Presidential history. Over the radio, FDR spoke simply and clearly, addressing national issues with straightforward language and direct explanations. These broadcasts allowed FDR to intimately connect with Americans in their homes—he earned the trust of the Nation and reassured the country during times of economic upheaval and world war. This tradition is carried on to this day through the President’s weekly address, usually posted online and broadcast on the radio.
Walk straight, around the right side of the central wall, and you will see a large stepped waterfall directly in front of you with six columns standing in the center of the room. These columns are meant to represent FDR’s New Deal, depicted as rolls of an industrial printing press. The negative images are shown wrapped around the columns and then “imprinted” on the wall to your left as bronze reliefs. The images show different New Deal programs that FDR enacted to help the United States out of the Great Depression. These tactile reliefs are meant to be interactive for the blind and include Braille captions throughout. The large stepped waterfall represents the Tennessee Valley Authority dam building projects, which helped stimulate the economy and electrify an area hard hit by the economic collapse. Walk around to the left to enter the third room, noting the inscription on the ground.
FDR’s third term as President brought the United States into World War II. The broken slabs of granite scattered along the ground represent the confusion and struggle that WWII created, with the quote “I hate war” inscribed on the blocks. Beyond the stones is a large sculpture of FDR and his beloved pet dog, Fala (the only presidential pet to be memorialized). FDR is represented as he was seen in real life, with a cloak obscuring his chair. As mentioned in the prologue room summary, this statue was the subject of controversy, even after metal castors were added to represent the wheelchair. You can see the castors if you look behind the statue. You will also notice that FDR’s pointer finger and Fala’s ears are a shiny gold, as visitors have been touching and taking pictures with the bronze sculptures since 1997. Continue along to the left to enter the fourth and final room of the memorial.
Walk down the ramp to your right to enter FDR’s fourth term, which was punctuated by the President’s death on April 12th, 1945. At the middle of the ramp is a still pool of water with a relief above depicting the President’s funeral procession. Continue down the ramp and enter the main area of the memorial. To your right is a statue of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with a United Nations emblem behind her. This is the only presidential memorial to honor a First Lady. It commemorates her contributions to the UN and human rights causes.
A large waterfall represents the culmination of FDR’s presidency and accomplishments. Carved into the steps to the left, exiting the memorial, there is a brief timeline of events in FDR’s life. The last quote of the memorial, engraved onto the wall to your right as you exit, is taken from FDR’s January 6th, 1941 State of the Union Address, when the country was on the precipice of entering World War II. In this speech, Roosevelt listed the “Four Freedoms” that American’s would be fighting for overseas: “Freedom of speech…Freedom of worship…Freedom from want…Freedom from fear.”
Written by Carolyn Muraskin