FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Engraved memorial wall, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington DC, USA
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For decades, three presidential monuments stood along the Tidal Basin in Washington as a reminder of America's past. In 1997 a fourth presidential monument was added; the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial.

The monument was over 40 years in the making. The U.S. Congress first established a commission to create a memorial to Roosevelt, the 32nd U.S. president, in 1955, 10 years after his death. Four years later, a location for the memorial was found. The memorial was to be located halfway between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, all overlooking along the Tidal Basin.

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The Design for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Washington
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Although several architectural competitions were held over the years, it wasn't until 1978 that a design was chosen. The commission chose the work of American landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, a 7 1/2-acre memorial that includes images and history representing both FDR himself and the era he lived in. With only a few changes, Halprin's concept was built.

Unlike the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, which are compact, covered, and focused on a single statue of each president, the FDR memorial is vast and uncovered and contains numerous statues, quotes, and waterfalls.

Halprin's design honors FDR by telling the story of the president and the country in chronological order. Since Roosevelt was elected to four terms of office, Halprin created four "rooms" to represent the 12 years of Roosevelt's presidency. The rooms, however, are not defined by walls and the monument could perhaps better be described as a long, meandering path, bordered by walls made of red South Dakota granite.

Since FDR brought the United States through the Great Depression and World War II, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, dedicated on May 2, 1997, now stands as a reminder of some of America's tougher times.

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Entrance to the FDR Memorial

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington DC
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Although visitors can access the FDR Memorial from several directions, since the memorial is organized chronologically, it is recommended that you begin your visit near this sign.

The large sign with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's name creates an imposing and strong entrance to the memorial. To the left of this wall sits the memorial's bookshop. The opening to the right of this wall is the entrance to the memorial. However, before you go farther, take a close look at the statue to the far right.

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Statue of FDR in a Wheelchair

FDR in his wheelchair
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A 10-foot bronze statue of FDR in a wheelchair caused a great deal of controversy. In 1920, more than a decade before he was elected president, FDR was struck by polio. Although he survived the illness, his legs remained paralyzed. Despite the fact that FDR often used a wheelchair in private, he hid his ailment from the public by using supports to help him stand.

When constructing the FDR Memorial, then, a debate arose over whether to present FDR in a position that he had so diligently kept hidden from view. Yet his efforts to overcome his handicap well represented his determinism.

The wheelchair in this statue is similar to the one he used in life. It was added in 2001, as a monument to FDR as he truly lived.

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The First Waterfall

The President Slept Here
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Halprin's architectural plan for the FDR Memorial included several waterfalls scattered throughout. Some create sheets of water, others bubble, and fizz. In the winter, the water in the falls freezes; some say that the freeze makes the falls even more beautiful.

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View From Room 1 to Room 2

Boy at the top of stairs, FDR Memorial
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The FDR Memorial is very large, covering 7 1/2 acres. Every corner has some kind of display, statue, quote, or waterfall. The unroofed layout provides a striking contrast and emotional setting to the architectural features. 

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The Fireside Chat

Statue by George Segal of a citizen listening to one of President Roosevelt fireside chats at the Fr
Buyenlarge / Getty Images

"The Fireside Chat," a sculpture by the American pop artist George Segal, shows a man listening intently to one of FDR's radio broadcasts. To the right of the statue is a quote from one of Roosevelt's fireside chats: "I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people and that I have been given their trust."

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The Rural Couple

The FDR Memorial in Washington, DC
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"The Rural Couple" is a bronze statue made by George Segal for Room 2, one of several evoking the Depression. The statue illustrates a somber man standing over a woman seated in a wooden chair. The wall of a barn door with the window open behind it is included in the sculpture. 

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The Depression Breadline
Marilyn Nieves / Getty Images

Next to "The Rural Couple" is Segal's "Breadline," which uses the sorrowful faces of the life-size statues as a powerful expression of the times, showing the inactivity and troubles of everyday citizens during the Great Depression. Many visitors to the memorial pretend to stand in line to have their picture taken.

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Quote: The Test of Our Progress

USA, Washington DC, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
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Between the two Segal sculptures is a quotation, one of the 21 quotes that can be found at the memorial. "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." The quotation is from "One-Third of a Nation," FDR's second inaugural address in 1937. All the inscriptions at the FDR Memorial were carved by calligrapher and stonemason John Benson. 

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The New Deal

FDR Memorial
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Walking around the wall, you will come into this open area with five tall pillars and a large mural, created by California sculptor Robert Graham, representing the New Deal, Roosevelt's program to help ordinary Americans recover from the Great Depression.

The five-paneled mural is a collage of various scenes and objects, including initials, faces, and hands; the images on the mural are inverted on the five columns.

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Waterfall in Room 2

A picture of the waterfall in Room 2 of the FDR Memorial in Washington D.C.
(Photo by Jennifer Rosenberg)

Part of Halprin's plan was to install a subtle sense of the growing troubles throughout FDR's four terms in office. One suggestion is brought to the memorial by the sound and sight of falling water. The waterfalls in the first part of the memorial flow smoothly and are nearly noiseless, but as the visitor walks along the path, the sound and visual effects change. The waterfalls in the middle of the installation are smaller and the flow of water is broken by rocks or other structures. The noise from the waterfalls increases as you go on. 

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Room 3: World War II

Engraved memorial wall, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington DC, USA
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World War II was the dominant event of FDR's third term. This quotation is from an address that Roosevelt gave at Chautauqua, New York, on Aug. 14, 1936.

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Waterfall in Room 3

The President Slept Here
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The war-ravaged the country. This waterfall is much larger than the others, and large chunks of granite are scattered about. The war attempted to break the fabric of the country as the scattered stones represent the possible break of the memorial.

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FDR and Fala

The FDR Memorial in Washington DC in snow.
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To the left of the waterfall sits a large sculpture of FDR, larger than life. Yet FDR remains human, sitting beside his dog, Fala. The sculpture is by New Yorker Neil Estern.

FDR doesn't live to see the end of the war, but he continues to fight in Room 4.

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Eleanor Roosevelt Statue

A Bronze Statue of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt Standing Before the United Nations
John Greim/LOOP IMAGES / Getty Images

A sculpture of the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stands next to the United Nations emblem. This statue is the first time a first lady has been honored in a presidential memorial.

To the left reads a quotation from FDR's Address to the Yalta Conference of 1945: "The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation, it must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world."

A beautiful, very large waterfall ends the memorial. Perhaps to show the strength and endurance of the U.S.?

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/fdr-memorial-in-washington-d-c-1779901. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2020, August 27). FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/fdr-memorial-in-washington-d-c-1779901 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/fdr-memorial-in-washington-d-c-1779901 (accessed July 24, 2021).