Just west of the Tidal Basin lies the memorial to the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Unlike most memorials in Washington, DC that consist largely of a single structure or statue, the FDR memorial is a mix of engravings, vegetation, statues, sculptures, walls and water features. It’s big, spread out over an area encompassing more than five football fields.
Noted landscape architect Lawrence Halpern designed the memorial so visitors could experience it in their own distinct way, which explains its unique, open, and rambling nature. Many Americans remember FDR as the only President elected to four terms and Mr. Halpern incorporated this unique accomplishment into his design. The memorial is laid out in four distinct sections or “rooms” with each room corresponding to one of FDR’s terms of office.
But to better understand the man and his memorial, it is important to look beyond these four rooms and FDR’s time in the White House. He was born into a wealthy New York family. Schooled at Harvard and Columbia Law School, he ultimately chose a career in politics rather than the law.
He modeled that career after his fifth cousin Theodore’s, although the members of his branch of the Roosevelt family were Democrats, while Teddy’s were Republicans. FDR was first elected to the New York State Senate in 1910 from a Republican leaning district. He was a reformist, pro-labor state senator who worked to limit the impact of the political machines which dominated much of the state’s politics.
As an early supporter of Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential election, FDR was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913. At the time, this was the number two position in the Navy Department, answering directly to the Secretary. He was eager to take the job. FDR greatly admired the Navy; he once claimed to own 10,000 books about the Navy and had read all of them but one. His cousin Teddy had also been Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and he saw the job as an important political stepping stone.
His seven years as Assistant Secretary provided FDR with valuable experience that served him well as President. As Assistant Secretary, he negotiated contracts, supervised civilian personnel and tried to orchestrate the work of the Navy’s various bureaus. He learned the importance of keeping good relations with Congress, how to work with big corporations and maintain the support of labor unions.
He also became acquainted with numerous Naval and Marine officers, many of whom he would call upon some twenty years later to serve in key commands and staff assignments. He founded the Naval Reserve and as World War I approached, he learned to apply various bureaucratic mechanisms to effectively harness industrial production and prepare the Navy for wartime. He was so highly regarded in his overall tenure at the Navy Department, he was selected as the Democratic Party’s Vice Presidential nominee in 1920. Although the Democrats lost that year, FDR’s advocacy for the common man in his policymaking and his remarkable communication skills would propel him to two terms as New York’s governor and, ultimately, to the White House.
Water is an important feature in this memorial. Over 100,000 gallons of water are recycled through the water features each minute. The water pools, the water falls, the water streams along, silently in some places, loud in others.
FDR loved the water. As a youth, FDR was an avid swimmer and sailor. After he was diagnosed with polio in 1921 at age 39, hydrotherapy became an important part of his rehabilitation. He purchased property in Warm Springs, Georgia where he returned regularly for treatments in the warm, mineral rich water.
FDR would devote tremendous time and energy to his therapy and was very supportive of others also afflicted by polio. He founded the Warm Springs Foundation, so many could experience the same therapeutic benefit of the waters. He would also found the National Institute for Infantile Paralysis, which we know today as the March of Dimes. While FDR would regain some limited use of his legs, he was always very careful not to be photographed or portrayed using the crutches or wheelchair he still relied upon.
FDR’s portrayal at the memorial was the subject of some controversy when it opened in 1997. A large statue of a seated FDR, along with his canine companion, Fala, shows FDR’s large cloak covering his wheelchair. Some thought his disability should be in full view as an example and inspiration to others. Ultimately, a bronze statue of FDR in a wheelchair was added in 2001 at the memorial’s entrance.
Scattered throughout the memorial are 21 inscriptions of famous quotations from FDR’s speeches, fireside chats and writings. They clearly evoke the troubles and challenges of the times. But they also reflect FDR’s unique ability to reach each individual in his audience and assure the listener of FDR’s concern for them and their future. Some quotes are very familiar (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”), others less so.
The central/showpiece quote in the third room, denoting World War II, comes from FDR’s “I Hate War” speech. FDR actually delivered this speech in 1936, as he was increasingly concerned by events in the world. He understood the impact of a global war and hoped to sway other nations to join the United States in avoiding conflict. That effort was, of course, not successful and the haphazard waterfalls and scattered granite blocks in the room—several inscribed with “I HATE WAR”—are meant to evoke the chaos and destruction of that war.
FDR died on April 12, 1945 at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia, just 26 days before the unconditional surrender of Germany and the end of World War II in Europe. The last room of the memorial is dedicated to his legacy. There is a small relief of his funeral cortege and several quotes about the future he hoped to realize and the peace he hoped to build.
The FDR Memorial is one of the most unique in Washington and well worth a special visit. Like all the memorials in the vicinity of the National Mall, the FDR Memorial is open 24 hours a day. The late evening or early morning hours are actually good times to visit, when the grounds are quieter and the nighttime illumination or early light create special effects on the walls, water, statues and other features. Park Rangers are on site daily from 9:30 am until 10:00 pm. There is also a book store by the entrance with a variety of materials about FDR, his wife Eleanor, and the Great Depression, as well as souvenirs of Washington, DC.
Interestingly, FDR desired something much different as a memorial. He once remarked to his friend, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, that if a memorial should ever be dedicated to him, it should be about the size of his desk and placed on the grass lawn in front of the National Archives. He wanted it kept very plain, with only the inscription “in Memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt”. He got his wish; the memorial was dedicated in 1965 and can be found at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 9th Street, NW, right next to the National Archives.
The two closest Metro stops to the FDR Memorial on the Mall are Federal Triangle and Smithsonian, both on the Blue, Orange and Silver Lines. DC Circulator’s National Mall route or Metrobus routes 32, 34 or 36 are also options. Visitor parking is available on Ohio Drive, between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Handicapped parking spaces are set aside at locations on West Basin Drive in front of the memorial. It is always important to note that street parking is often limited in DC.