Tomb of the Four Freedoms: New York's Cold Monument FDR's Internationalist Vision

By McCrary, Lewis | The American Conservative, July-August 2013 | Go to article overview

Tomb of the Four Freedoms: New York's Cold Monument FDR's Internationalist Vision


McCrary, Lewis, The American Conservative


Despite his recognition as one of the great modernists of the 20th century, postwar architect Louis Kahn claimed to be inspired by the crumbling edifices of the ancients. After trips to Italy, Greece, and Egypt, he developed his signature style: "I thought of the beauty of ruins ... of things which nothing lives behind ... and so I thought of wrapping ruins round buildings." Fittingly for an architect influenced by the remains of temples and other sacred spaces, Kahn's final commission was a public monument.

New York City's Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, designed by Kahn shortly before his death in 1974, finally opened last fall, four decades after it was first conceived and several generations after the 32nd president's 1941 speech setting out the moral case for the coming war in terms of "freedom of speech," "freedom of worship," "freedom from want," and "freedom from fear" The Four Freedoms rhetoric would outlive Roosevelt and become a cornerstone of the American-led postwar international order, what was hoped to be a new era of perpetual peace and universal human rights.

The new tribute to this grand vision occupies a dramatic space at the southern tip of a narrow island in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. Around the same time the memorial was commissioned, the city renamed the 147 acres ater FDR, and today Roosevelt Island is an increasingly upscale urban neighborhood, its thousands of residents connected to midtown Manhattan by an aerial tramway.

But it wasn't always so idyllic. Before the FDR rebranding, it was known for decades as Welfare Island, a legacy of its history as the place where the city sent all its undesirables. From the early 19th century, the sick, insane, and destitute--and until the 1930s, most of the city's convicts--were housed in this purgatory in the East River.

Most of the infrastructure of prisons and asylums has been demolished or repurposed, and today high-rises dominate the island. Yet one prominent reminder of the past, the 1856 Smallpox Hospital, sits abandoned and in advanced decay. Executed in the Gothic Revival style by James Renwick Jr.--who also designed St. Patrick's Cathedral and the original Smithsonian Institution--it is a genuine ruin just steps from Kahn's newly constructed Given the island's slender profile, under 800 feet wide in most places, a visitor en route to Four Freedoms Park cannot avoid encountering the former hospital, which officials plan to stabilize but leave in its current romantic condition. Dark stone walls, embattled parapets, and pointed-arch windows provide the illusion of medieval origin, and it is hard to imagine a more striking contrast to the FDR memorial and the new era it represents. The age of the charity hospital, imperfect but ornate, gives way to the abstract yet shining promise of the new world order and the welfare state, a place where diseases like smallpox are eradicated.

Approaching Kahn's park--a series of outdoor spaces surrounded by bright white granite--one is nearly blinded. The entrance, a wide series of shallow steps, is set into a 12-foot slab that rises at an angle, like some ancient Aztec or Egyptian structure, and stands high enough to obscure what waits above and beyond.

Ascending this staircase suddenly reveals the memorial's largest space, a triangular plaza. Sparingly landscaped, it features a lawn flanked by two symmetrical rows of linden trees, under which cobblestone paths meet at the same point several hundred feet away. The converging walkways are an impressive visual trick, making the space appear larger than it is.

The clean lines first evoke a Parisian green, but the lack of furniture reminds one that despite its designation as a park, this is not a place for leisure. Indeed the memorial's posted rules require that visitors leave picnics and pets at home in order to "preserve its sanctity" The lawn space instead acts as the nave of a cathedral, a place that points to more hallowed precincts beyond. …

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