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FDR Memorial Park Unveiled on Roosevelt Island

By Jill Colvin | October 17, 2012 1:29pm

ROOSEVELT ISLAND — A gleaming new memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt — a dramatic, granite tribute jutting out of the East River — was unveiled at long last on his namesake island.

The four-acre Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park will begin welcoming visitors next week, nearly 40 years after it was first envisioned as New York's only memorial to the president who led the nation through the Great Depression and World War II.

"This day has been a long time in the coming," said former President Bill Clinton, addressing a crowd of state and city officials including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and members of the Roosevelt family Wednesday morning.

The work was inspired by a 1941 speech now chiseled into stone, in which Roosevelt said he looked forward to a future founded on four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Clinton said the memorial, which was designed by Louis I. Kahn and cost roughly $53 million, should serve as a reminder of the need to keep fighting for the freedoms Roosevelt championed.

"This park should always remind us that those dreams are worth pursuing," he said. "We need never to forget that we will never be free of these fears until we are one community of shared prosperity, shared responsibilities, and a shared sense of citizenship."

The memorial, which stretches along the south side of the island, had originally been conceived back in the late 1960s by Mayor John Lindsay, who chose Kahn as the architect and renamed what was then known as "Welfare Island" in Roosevelt's honor.

But the project quickly came to a halt when the city's economy began to unravel and Kahn died suddenly of a heart attack in a bathroom at Penn Station. Rumor has it that, in his briefcase, Kahn was carrying the final plans for the memorial — the same plans that began to take shape in 2010 when construction finally commenced — 38 years after the project was first announced.

The centerpiece of the project is a dramatic white-stepped structure built on the southern tip of the island, with sweeping views of the East Side of Manhattan and the United Nations, which Roosevelt championed.

Visitors arriving at the memorial first climb a set of white steps, leading to a lawn lined by 120 Linden trees.  At the tip of the island is the main "room," a roofless collection of granite slabs, which houses a giant 1,000-pound bronze bust of Roosevelt mounted against a white wall.

Excerpts from the "four freedoms" speech are inscribed on the other side of the wall.

Bloomberg said he expected the memorial to attract millions of residents and tourists a year to the island, which will soon serve as home to the new Cornell high-tech graduate campus.

"This park is destined to be a national treasure," he said. “Its opening signals the beginning of a new era for the island.”

Cuomo also announced Wednesday that the memorial will be designated the newest state park.

Khan's other works include the Yale University Art Gallery, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and the Capital City in Bangladesh.