WHAT IS IT? Sprawling outdoor granite monument complex dedicated to our 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
BEAUTY (3/10) Humongous pink granite stacked walls allegedly separate this ridiculously long memorial into distinctive “rooms”, each of which explain different parts of FDR’s life and the America he shaped. Miniature golf course-worthy waterfalls appear (thematically out of nowhere) in each “room” adding a taunting cruelty to your D.C. summer visit. What do you mean I can’t stick my head into the waterfall, Mr. Ranger?
In addition to the waterfalls, the “rooms” contain larger-than-life bronze statues of FDR, Eleanor and Fala, bas relief abstract wall art, quotes written in Braille, statues of five guys in a chow line and a statue of a man listening to a radio. The “rooms” adornments are symbolic to the point of absurdity and too numerous and too disjointed to understand as a whole. Maddeningly, there are no pamphlets, no exhibits and no Rangers to explain the artistic minutiae and historic allusions.
Perhaps the Memorial looks better and offers a more pleasant visit in spring when surrounded by blooming cherry blossoms and cooler weather. We can only hope.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (5/10) It took almost 50 years to bring the current FDR Memorial to reality. Even when it was dedicated in May 1997, some felt it was incomplete.
The latest addition to the Memorial is perhaps the most controversial. In January 2001, a little more than 10 years after the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a statue of FDR sitting in his wheelchair was added to the Prologue Room. Its $1.65M construction and placement primarily funded by the National Organization on Disability who advocated for a true representation of the president’s polio-inflicted disability.
Those opposed to the addition argued that FDR had gone to great lengths to conceal his disability and never wanted to be seen as someone “disabled.” Would a man who hid his wheelchair, crutches and inability to walk from photographers appreciate that his assistive devices are now carved indelibly in stone? Do FDR’s decisions reflect denial and shame or unusual strength and determination?
We don’t have the answers, but credit the FDR Memorial and its seated statue for returning the issues of full inclusion for individuals with disabilities to the national table.
CROWDS (3/10) If you thought 7.5 acres, “four rooms”, 300 trees and 4000 granite blocks would offer a place for quiet reflection or even an isolated experience you would be wrong. Despite the Memorial’s profligate use of public space, we found it impossible to enjoy the Site at our own pace. The crowds all move to the same spots and all take the same pictures. We never thought we would be queuing for ten minutes to take a picture of the bronze FDR and Fala. Sure, we could have moved on sans photo, but that’s not the point. We have principles…and a Chinese tourist-less picture of Fala.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5) No place in West Potomac Park or the National Mall is further from a D.C. Metro stop than the FDR Memorial. The Smithsonian, Foggy Bottom and L’Enfant Plaza stop all are more than one mile away! During D.C. summers, that one mile feels more like five miles.
Since there is no parking, the easiest way to visit is via the Tourmobile® Sightseeing buses. Your $20.00 per adult all day ticket drops you off in front of the FDR Memorial and every other National Mall-area attraction.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5) Once he is able to say the book’s title ten times really fast, Michael is going to read David Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning, 992-page long Depression-era America tome Freedom from Fear. He swears.
There have been many books written about FDR, WWII, Eleanor and the Depression and this bookstore carries an admirable selection discussing those themes.
COSTS (4/5) This open-air monstrosity is free although we could think at least one-thousand better places in D.C. to spend your time.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5) Gab claims to have seen two Rangers milling about the various “rooms”. Michael cannot corroborate what he thinks were waterfall-induced mirages.
TOURS/CLASSES (2/10) During our stay, we fruitlessly hoped that a Ranger talk would materialize. Perhaps then we could have understood what we were looking at. We know the history; we just could not come to grips with what the architects were trying to say or what mood they meant to provoke.
Did the waterfalls somehow suggest FDR’s feverish dam building or were they meant to allude to his Hudson River home? What is being said when FDR’s “I Hate War” quote is emblazoned on a wall and then, in a separate display, seen crushed in granite rubble? We can come up with dozens of interpretations, most of them contradictory, anachronistic and ultimately a misreading of FDR’s history and intentions.
FUN (2/10) We came to the FDR Memorial with a muted anticipation. We loved our time at Hyde Park and have effusive admiration for our 32nd president.
With every step through the Memorial we grew more confused. “What’s the point of that”, we thought, still confused. Then the sarcasm crept in,“oooh, another waterfall”. We walked with a hope the next pink granite corner would signal the Site’s linear end. But the Memorial kept going.
Then came the 10-minute long (or was it 20) FDR photo incident. Thankfully, only trees and the Tidal Basin greeted us around the next corner.
We left the FDR Memorial with audible appreciation that we now had our lives back.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (2/10) Whether apocryphal or not, in 1982 Time Magazine reported that FDR once told Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter that he wanted only a small memorial about the size of his desk. FDR continued, “I want it plain without any ornamentation, with the simple carving, `In memory of . . .’”
FDR’s desired Memorial exists and sits in front of the National Archives building. Why this new FDR Memorial had to be built or, better yet, why $48,500,000 had to be spent on it escapes us. We do know that we will never visit here again but we will return to Hyde Park this July. FDR would probably agree with our decision.
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