FDR Finally Comes Home

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The FDR Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island is set to begin construction in September.
Courtesy FDR Four Freedoms Park

Yesterday, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park foundation received permission from the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation to begin construction of Phase I of the Louis I. Kahn-designed park at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. “This is the end of the beginning as we now embark on the construction of a great public park,” William vanden Heuvel, chairman of the foundation, told AN.

Commissioned in 1973 by then New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in honor of President Roosevelt, the park is named for the former president’s esteemed Four Freedoms speech. Renowned architect Louis Kahn was commissioned to design the memorial, and his vision remains largely intact to this day, despite a number of setbacks.

The park’s design is centered around two main elements—the garden and the room, the garden representing man’s influence over nature, and the room representing the fundamental aspects of architecture. Kahn’s design was completed and approved just months before his death in 1974.

An original sketch of the park by Louis Kahn.
Courtesy FDR Four Freedoms Park

Since then, the design made its way into the hands of New York-based firm Mitchell/Giurgola Architects. Forming a joint venture with two associates from Kahn’s office who had originally worked on the project, they completed a set of working drawings for construction in 1975.

A series of governmental and financial vagaries in the 1970s caused the project to lose momentum. Having languished for two decades, the project made some headway in the early 1990s, when a grant was given to the island to rebuild and repair the sea walls, and money was used to reconstruct some of the rip-rap that encircles the edge of the park, and to contour the land in preparation for future construction.

The entrance to the park.
Vladislav YELISEYEV/Polshek Partnership

Recently, renewed interest in the art of memorial-making and the work of Kahn have enabled the project to proceed. Of particular help was the documentary My Architect, by Kahn’s son Nathaniel, and a 2005 show at the Cooper Union, Coming to Light.

Mitchell/Giurgola partner and project architect Paul Broches noted that only minor changes have been made to Kahn’s original work. “We’ve updated the drawings to comply with current ADA requirements and conducted more in-depth analysis of structural issues without changing the appearance of Kahn’s original design,” Broches said.

“While Kahn didn’t anticipate some of the issues we had to deal with, his design was well thought out and thoroughly designed, speaking for itself very strongly,” he added.

The Garden.
Vladislav YELISEYEV/Polshek Partnership

Divided into three phases, the park is expected to take 30 months to complete, that is, if all phases proceed seamlessly. “Right now we have our funding in place to build and complete Phase I, and must demonstrate our financial ability to complete each phase prior to beginning construction,” Gina Pollara, executive director of the foundation, said. Phase I will include the construction of the "room," a 72-foot-square plaza, open to the sky, as well as rip-rap modifications to the surrounding shoreline, and is expected to take 12 months to complete.

This project will be the first architectural work of Kahn’s in New York City, as well as the first memorial dedicated to President Roosevelt in his home state. Construction of Phase I is scheduled to begin this September.

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