When it comes to Presidential memorials in D.C., there have been occasions when people decide after the memorial is completed that it is not quite right, or not big enough, or somehow unbefitting the president who it is intended to honor. And instead of accepting or even modifying the original memorial, they build a second, grander presidential memorial, often in what is considered a more prominent location. And interestingly, it is usually the second memorial with which the public is most familiar. This happened when The Original Washington Monument was deemed insufficient, and the giant obelisk on the National Mall was erected to honor our nation’s first president.
The same type of thing happened again more recently when the existing memorial to our nation’s 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was deemed inadequate, and another, larger memorial was constructed near the Tidal Basin (MAP), which is considered one of the most prominent locations in the national capitol city. It was to this memorial that I went on today’s bike ride.
The Original FDR Memorial, which relatively few people know about, is located near the corner of 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. In accordance with Roosevelt’s expressed wishes, the original memorial was erected in 1965 “in the center of the green plot in front of The National Archives and Records Administration Building (and) consists of a block about the size of (his) desk.”
Thirty-two years later, in contradiction to Roosevelt’s specific wishes, the more well-known FDR Memorial was dedicated. The newer memorial is large, even by D.C. standards. Spread out over seven and a half acres on the southern side of The Tidal Basin, it traces 12 years of the history of the U.S. through a sequence of four outdoor “rooms,” one for each of his terms in office, from 1933 until his death in 1945.
The design of the memorial, by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, was chosen in 1978, and it opened to the public in 1997 after a dedication ceremony led by President Bill Clinton. As an historic area managed by the National Park Service, the memorial is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The memorial contains a number of sculptures inspired by famous photographs of Roosevelt. One depicts the 32nd president alongside his pet Scottie named Fala. It is the only presidential pet to be memorialized. Other sculptures depict scenes from the Great Depression, such as listening to a fireside chat on the radio and waiting in a bread line. Also included is a bronze statue of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt standing before the United Nations (UN) emblem, honoring her dedication to the UN. It is the only presidential memorial to depict a First Lady. Water is also used prominently in the memorial as a metaphorical device, including waterfalls depicting World War II and the Great Depression, and a still pool representing the 32nd president’s death.
However, like many memorials and monuments in D.C., the FDR Memorial is not without controversy. Taking into consideration Roosevelt’s disability, the memorial’s design is intended to make it accessible to those with various physical impairments. For example, the memorial includes an area with tactile reliefs with braille writing for people who are visually impaired. However, the memorial faced serious criticism from disabled activists because the braille dots were improperly spaced and some of the braille and reliefs were mounted eight feet off of the ground, placing it physically above the reach of most people.
Another controversy involves one of the statues of Roosevelt. Against the wishes of some disability-rights advocates and historians, the memorial’s designers initially decided against plans to have Roosevelt shown in a wheelchair. Although Roosevelt used a wheelchair in private, it was hidden from the public because of the stigma of weakness which was associated with any disability at that time. So instead, the main statue in the memorial depicts the president in a chair, with a cloak obscuring the chair, which is how he usually appeared to the public during his lifetime. In a compromise, casters were added to the back of the chair, making it a symbolic “wheelchair”. However, the casters are only visible from behind the statue, and this compromise did not satisfy either side. Eventually, an additional statue was added and placed near the memorial’s entrance which clearly depicts Roosevelt in a wheelchair much like the one he actually used.