If you scroll through the National Park Service list of national park birthdays, you’ll see a September entry that seems more than a bit odd. The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the list informs us, was established on September 1, 1959. Whoa! Can that possibly be true? The memorial to FDR was established a lot more recently than that, wasn’t it?
Indeed, a quick check of the record shows that the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial that sits on 7.5 acres of prime land near the Tidal Basin’s Cherry Tree Walk was dedicated only 11 years ago (on May 2, 1997, to be more precise).
But that heavily-visited presidential commemorative with all its wonderful statuary and reliefs in four “outdoor rooms” is not the original. The first Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial installed in our nation’s capital was only a simple plaque (see accompanying photo) attached to a marble block situated on a lawn near the corner of 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
The inscription, quoted verbatim here, reveals that this humble memorial is exactly what FDR wanted:
In September 1941 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called his friend, Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter, to the White House and asked the justice to remember the wish he then expressed. “If any memorial is erected to me, I know exactly what I should like it to be. I should like it to consist of a block about the size of this (putting his hand on his desk) and placed in the center of that green plot in front of the Archives building. I don’t care what it is made of, whether of limestone or granite or whatnot, but I want it plain without any ornamentation, with the simple carving ‘n memory of ____________’ ”.
Getting any sort of memorial to FDR installed in Washington was not an easy thing. Following Roosevelt’s death there was a lengthy round of dickering about the kind of memorial that the federal government should create for FDR, his personal wishes notwithstanding. Congress authorized the establishment of a Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Commission on August 11, 1955, and on September 1, 1959, it enacted legislation authorizing the Commission to announce a design competition. (For reasons this author does not fully understand, the National Park Service now considers September 1, 1959, to be the official birthday of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and that is the way it is listed with the other components of the National Park System in the aforementioned “park birthday” list.)
FDR’s family, especially his daughter Anna Roosevelt Halsted, didn’t like the winning design and expressed concerns about the divisive nature of criticism that might attend the establishment of a memorial too soon after Roosevelt’s death. (Millions of Americans intensely disliked FDR, and many still do, mostly because of the New Deal programs he initiated.) In the end, Congress decided to ignore the FDR memorial issue, at least for a few years.
Ignoring FDR’s wishes for a simple memorial didn’t sit well with many of his friends and associates. On April 12, 1965, exactly 20 years after FDR’s death, a group of them used private funds to install the simple plaque that is the subject of this article.
If you want to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the creation of the original memorial, be sure read: Isabelle Hyman, “Marcel Breuer and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Dec., 1995), pp. 446-458.
Epilogue: More than 30 years after the original memorial was installed on a small block of marble in that little park on Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress finally got around to building a big, prominently situated -- and may we say much more presidential -- memorial for the country’s 32nd president. We’ll have more to say about this memorial, but I think we’ll hold off on the anniversary celebration until its “real” birthday on May 2nd.