My wife and I were recently summoned to Washington, D.C., by our son and his wife for babysitting duties. Our granddaughter, Cora, has just turned two. She is perfect, of course, but she is two, and brandishes the word “No” with the authority of a stern nurse. On our day off from babysitting, we decided to visit the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. I think I first heard about the memorial, which opened in 1997, from Commonweal’s good friend Mark Shields. He recommended visiting it on the PBS Newshour, and as usual what he said was true.
The park-like memorial is a bit off the beaten path, spread out across 7.5 acres between the Tidal Basin and the Potomac River and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. As luck would have it, the August heat broke and it was a perfect day to be outside, with temperatures in the seventies and almost no humidity. Ideal for slowly walking around the memorial’s monumental red granite walls, which are engraved with quotations from FDR as well as Eleanor, and its dramatic sculptures, waterfalls, and pools.
A bronze sculpture of Roosevelt in his wheelchair is the first thing visitors see. Children scramble up onto Roosevelt’s lap, where the bronze has been polished to a bright gold by human contact, while adults pose beside the statue for photos. Curiously, when the memorial first opened there was no depiction of Roosevelt in a wheelchair, causing a good deal of controversy. That omission was eventually corrected, and the entire memorial is readily accessible to the disabled.
The memorial is laid out as four outdoor “rooms,” each chronicling the disparate challenges Roosevelt faced, from the Great Depression and the New Deal to the Second World War. Leonard Baskin and George Segal were among the renowned sculptors commissioned to bring Roosevelt’s legacy to life in metal. Particularly powerful are Segal’s life-size sculpture of a Depression-era breadline and Baskin’s bronze bas-relief of the four-term president’s funeral cortege. Perhaps even more compelling is Neil Estern’s larger-than-life sculpture of a seated Roosevelt draped in a cloak, his face contorted by disease.