The New Deal

09.23.12

Inside New York’s New Four Freedoms Park: A Private Tour

It was architect Louis Kahn’s vision of a tribute to America’s transformative president. Nearly 40 years later, it’s almost ready to open. An exclusive, insider’s look at the stunning new memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Manhattan’s skyline gleams in the background, a shimmer of gold and pink. But my eyes are riveted on something a boat ride away.

“Look at the tiny gap between the granite blocks,” says landscape architect Lois Dubin, pointing to a sliver between two megaliths. “Look how the setting sun glows through the joints! The stone seems incandescent; the blocks, as if they’re floating. It’s gorgeous!”

Dubin’s awe is contagious. We are standing in the middle of New York’s East River—specifically, on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, a 2-mile-long finger of land anchored by the United Nations to the west and Astoria Boulevard to the east in Queens—marveling at the effect of the rosy sunset on a perfect New York afternoon. The planets have aligned here forever, giving anyone with the sense to look a glimpse of glory. But only now, with the completion of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, can the rest of us appreciate the transformative power of a magical spot dedicated to a revered leader. White granite slabs reflecting the day’s changing colors dazzle the eye. Majestic trees and bright green grass soothe the soul. It is a symphony of perfectly integrated parts, a place to celebrate and contemplate, a “monumental triumph,” according to New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman

All thanks to the genius of an iconic artist.

Louis Kahn is the architect’s architect. His innovative use of raw material, translating the grandeur of ancient structures into modern urban utilitarianism—the Salk Institute in La Jolla, the Art Gallery at Yale, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; and the National Assembly building in Bangladesh (featured in the film My Architect by his son, Nathaniel), to name a few—are finally being recognized in the wider world as architectural masterpieces, among the most significant buildings of the late 20th century. 

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In 1973 Louis Kahn was selected to design a memorial (then, the first in the nation) to our 32nd president. It would be in New York, where FDR had been born, lived, governed, and buried. In a bipartisan agreement, the Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller, and the Democratic Mayor, John V. Lindsay, specified the site, Welfare Island, which would be renamed for Mr. Roosevelt.  But in 1974, Kahn’s heart gave way and he died—ignominiously, in a restroom at New York’s Penn Station. He was 73. 

It took three days to identify Kahn’s body, another 38 years to complete his design. What happened in between required tons of landfill to extend the island, tens of millions of dollars (masterfully raised by former U.S. Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel) to build the memorial, and plenty of handwringing by a team of dedicated engineers, architects, and managers, to get it right. In October, it will open to the public, Kahn’s only work in New York City. This is a sneak preview.

“Meet me at the Tram, 59th Street and Second Avenue, and we’ll go to visit,” Lois Dubin has told me, agreeing to this exclusive tour for The Daily Beast. Full disclosure:  Lois is my older sister, an acclaimed landscape architect whose connection with Lou Kahn has been part of my life for decades. As a student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Landscape Architecture in the late 1950s-early 1960s, Lois was privileged to know him as a design critic on her landscape-architecture juries, then as a colleague in the early days of her career. She raved about him the way modern teens talk about Justin Bieber. As her teenage sibling a few miles away in suburban Philadelphia, I drooled over the stories. One day I finally got to meet the great man, over lunch at the café where the architects hung out in Philly’s Center City. I remember a small, bespectacled man with a kindly nature, more poet than professor. Alas, I took no notes; I was just being careful not to say anything dumb.

Lois’s memories are more specific. “He liked my drawings,”  she says, recalling the pen-and-ink sketches she’d done one summer in Israel while roaming the Judean Hills and Arab villages. “His recommendation led to an exhibit at the architectural school, and that year I received the student drawing award. That’s what brought me to Lou’s attention.” When she went to work with his landscape consultant, she remained one of the many talented individuals in whose careers Kahn took a personal interest. 

When Kahn died, his partner, David Wisdom, asked Mitchell/Giurgola Architects to be the associated architectural firm for the FDR memorial. Lois’s firm—Villa/Sherr—was asked to serve as landscape architects.  She’s been on the project ever since, and for many months has taken this trip across the East River almost daily to coordinate the planting of the trees, the lawn and other details. In fact, she is the only person still officially associated with the project who was there from 1974. It is a team of which she’s a proud member. 

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During the four-minute tram ride, she points out the site—an aerial view of a neat green and white triangle—and when we disembark, she literally gives me my marching instructions. “We’ll walk about 10 minutes south, then through the gate,” she says. 

The walk itself is a marvel: a stroll along the East River (its currents looking seductively swimmable) across from the palaces of Manhattan (looking like giant toys): Sutton, Beekman, River House, U.N. Plaza. Lois tells me that the team has worked hard to actualize Kahn’s vision; to comply with his angles and placement of stones and paving; in her case, to translate his graceful sketches on yellow tracing paper into a living park. His design was there; ditto the proportions, his geometry, his dream. But the specifics—Which tree? How many? How far apart? What type of gravel?—were not. That’s where her expertise came in. 

And then we see it. 

Five stately copper beeches signal the start of something special. They were chosen, Lois says, for their grandeur, because they are “tall, inviting, and gracious. And they met the climatic conditions.” There had been discussion of several varieties of trees before Kahn died, she explains, but nothing had been firmed up. She was the lead person “trying to figure out what trees would make the most sense.” One big clue: “Lou liked copper beeches. We’d had conversations about them.” And they were available from a highly respected source, Whitmore’s Tree Farm in East Hampton, N.Y. They are a perfect anchor to the magnetic pull south.

The world seeps in, but you feel safe and protected. The blocks do not confine. But they define the man who inspired them.

The journey begins up a majestic white stone staircase, broad enough for a legion of Romans, with steps that invite you to climb to the sky. Ramped promenades to either side provide the same wishful access to the disabled. 

What’s next is well worth the ascent: the grand allée—a gradually narrowing vee of trees—which, once again, had not been specified by Kahn. One of his thoughts had been Littleleaf lindens, and Lois advised them as the best choice. “It was their shape, their hardiness to the salt, wind, and air, and the fact that we could locate 120 matched trees at an appropriate size,” she says. They came from Halka Nurseries in New Jersey, and you can see them across the river from the, yes, FDR Drive in Manhattan. Standing right beneath them is infinitely better. 

The lindens of Kahn’s allée pull you south, along a stately route that invites you to enjoy the waves below and the clouds above, along with the buildings of Manhattan and the growing waterfront of Long Island City. En route:  gravel walkways, solidified with resin, for ease of travel on feet or wheelchairs, a glittering effect that mirrors the glint of changing currents. The resin was added to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, legislated long after Kahn’s death, just one of many adjustments to the original plan to accommodate a changing world. On both sides, paths slant down to the river as it splits around the 4-acre landmass. 

And then you reach the end, as the allée opens up to a small paved plaza. On the day we are there, the enormous head of FDR—enlarged from the original bronze sculpted in 1933 by Jo Davidson—is being lifted onto its pedestal, a surreal, once-in-a-lifetime view of an iconic leader floating above the city of his birth. As Gina Pollara, executive director of the project, looks on, it is settled in place, just like the myriad of other elements (done by tree planters, gardeners, stone masons, carvers, electricians, and contractors) that have come together under her watch.

Just beyond lies the culmination of the memorial, the reason it’s there. 

Kahn called it The Room—a three-sided, open-to-the-sky plaza designed and dedicated to the world-affirming vision of President Roosevelt. The walls are granite blocks—28 36-ton, white-granite slabs (this, Kahn specified) from the Mount Airy quarry in North Carolina (the team’s decision), each separated from its neighbor by that critical one-inch joint. The effect is magical at any time of day, but if you can wait, it’s worth it. That’s the space that lets the sunset appear. That’s the genius that helps define this memorial.  The world seeps in, but you feel safe and protected. The blocks do not confine. But they define the man who inspired them. On the north wall, carved into the rock, are the Four Freedoms FDR sought during World War II as the foundation of the world: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, and freedom from want and fear.

To the east, the United Nations, FDR’s hope. To the south, the riverway to the Statue of Liberty and Europe, the world beyond, a global connection that is the legacy of this president. 

“This project is about honoring FDR and his world view through the design genius of Louis Kahn,” Lois tells me.  “Lou, like FDR, was a man of the world. He dreamt big and he asked deep questions. And he never stopped reminding us that it was the responsibility of architecture to create the opportunities for what the world can be.”

His spirit, she says, was open and generous. So is this memorial, and the president it honors. It is a gift to the city, a celebration for the nation. And so is my visit, a chance to relive a special time in the childhood I shared with my sister, to see the outcome of one man’s work and the influence of his teaching.

But you don’t need Lois to take you on the tour. Take a friend. Take your kids. Take yourself. But go visit. And think of the possibilities.

Editor's Note: This piece originally stated that FDR died in New York. He died in Warm Springs, Georgia.