George Washington, a Virginian, has his statue on Wall Street, Ohio-born Ulysses S. Grant has his tomb overlooking the Hudson. But for reasons nobody can easily explain, New York native son Franklin Delano Roosevelt has no official memorial in this city.
Not that the name is forgotten: There is FDR Drive in Manhattan, Roosevelt Avenue in Queens and Roosevelt Island in the middle of the East River. There is also a memorial to FDR’s wife, Eleanor.
Now, after lying dormant for three decades, plans are being revived to give Roosevelt his due as the 32nd president and author of the New Deal, who led the United States through most of the Great Depression and World War II.
It would come in the form of a stone edifice at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, a two-mile-long sliver of land renamed for FDR in 1973.
For more than a century before that it was Welfare Island, with hospitals, a poorhouse, a penitentiary and a lunatic asylum. In 1841, Charles Dickens visited the asylum; in 1888, muckraking reporter Nellie Bly posed as a patient for 10 days to expose its deplorable conditions.
Official: 'It's now or never'
Roosevelt Island today is a high-rise village of 10,000 people including United Nations diplomats and staff from the cluster of hospitals on Manhattan’s East Side.
The only remnant of the past is the skeletal remains of the Smallpox Hospital, which is known as the Renwick Ruin and is eerily illuminated at night with funds from an anonymous donor.
The name change in 1973 was in anticipation of an FDR memorial being built. Famed architect Louis I. Kahn drafted a design, but a city fiscal crisis delayed the project.
When Kahn died of a heart attack in a men’s room in Penn Station a year later, drawings of the memorial in his pocket helped police identify the body.
Money problems, political inertia and faded public interest kept Kahn’s plan on the shelf until it was recently dusted off as the centerpiece of a new effort to honor the former president.
The design features a sloping lawn and V-shaped promenades leading to an open space with granite walls, framing views to the south and west of the river and Manhattan towers, including the U.N. complex. It would border a 10-acre park, being developed separately.
“It’s now or never,” says City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, the FDR project’s leading advocate, noting that once construction begins on the park next year, plans for the memorial could be imperiled.
Financing major problem
One big problem is the financing: the nonprofit Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute has so far raised just $6 million, a fraction of the memorial’s $40 million projected cost.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. Eliot Spitzer have declared support for the project, as have members of Congress and other politicians. But no government funds have been forthcoming.
Gina Pollara, who manages the institute’s fundraising effort, said she expected an infusion of more money soon. “We hope this will include contributions from the city and the state, as they promised when this project began 35 years ago,” she said.
The FDR memorial would be built to Kahn’s design or not at all, its advocates say.
“We are in this amazing position to build to a design by the ’architect’s architect,’ a master of the 20th century,” Pollara said.
In an interview at the deserted, windblown memorial site, Lappin called Kahn’s concept “a timeless, elegant design” sure to draw visitors from around the world.
“Having 14 undeveloped acres in the middle of the river is a one-time chance to do something right, that people will enjoy forever,” she said. “If the FDR memorial doesn’t happen, there’s no other plan for those three acres. People could put up luxury condos. It’s up for grabs, and that makes me nervous.”
Residents lukewarm to idea
Island residents don’t appear to be jumping with enthusiasm for the project.
Comments on a community Web site tilted toward the negative, with critics saying it was too isolated; did not reflect FDR’s legacy of social reform; would ruin a goose nesting ground; or was too expensive.
Dick Lutz, managing editor of The Main Street WIRE, the island’s community newspaper, said that while some people support the plan as a way to block real estate developers, resistance stems from residents’ desire for more green space, and a view that the project is “more a memorial to its architect than to FDR.”
In any case, he said, funding is the key question.
“Without it, the project could linger for another decade. With it, it will be hard to resist,” he said. “There’s no question we need something here memorializing Roosevelt.”