Mills: New Four Freedoms Park is a fitting FDR memorial

The new FDR Four Freedoms Park in New The new FDR Four Freedoms Park in New York. Photo Credit: Paul Warchol

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I was lucky. On the day I visited the new Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on the southernmost tip of Roosevelt Island in New York City, I was alone except for the park's executive director and a handful of workers putting the finishing touches on the entrance. Four Freedoms Park, which was dedicated last week and opens to the public on Wednesday, felt like a rural retreat during the hour I was there. Only the United Nations buildings, visible across the East River, reminded me that I was still in the city.

In the early morning quiet, it was hard to imagine that an ugly dispute between Four Freedoms Park's sponsors and two donor foundations, which wanted their names more prominently displayed in the park, was brewing and would only be resolved on the eve of the park's dedication, after a court hearing. The creation of the park was first announced in 1973, by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and New York City Mayor John Lindsay, but its historical roots go much deeper.

The four freedoms on which the park is based were an idea President Franklin Roosevelt put forward on Jan. 6, 1941, in his ninth State of the Union address. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear: These were, FDR believed, the freedoms America needed to stand for in a world in which the armies of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany had already won early victories.

"No realistic American can expect from a dictator's peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament," Roosevelt warned, 11 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The four freedoms combined FDR's commitment to personal liberty with his belief that "necessitous men are not free men," and in their wake came not only allied victory in World War II, but the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Marshall Plan, which helped Europe get back on its feet in the post-World War II years.

The new Four Freedoms Park is remarkable for the care with which it honors FDR's deepest values.

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Roosevelt was leery of memorials. In 1941 he told his friend, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, that the only memorial he wanted for himself should be about the size of his White House desk. That wish came true in 1965, 20 years after his death, when a small, marble memorial to him was put up on the lawn in front of the National Archives Building in Washington.

But 1997 brought the opposite of what Roosevelt wanted with the completion of Lawrence Halprin's sprawling 7.5-acre FDR Memorial along the Tidal Basin in Washington. Featuring four outdoor gallery rooms, plus an array of waterfalls, pools, and sculptures, Halprin's memorial to Roosevelt substituted hodgepodge for vision.

The reverse is the case with Four Freedoms Park, for which its architect, Louis Kahn, completed the drawings before he died from a heart attack in 1974. Kahn's Four Freedoms Park rests on a unified vision. Even the carefully piled stones, which constitute the riprap edge of the park and protect it from East River currents, are a product of Kahn's master plan, which was shelved by a series of New York City and state financial crises until William vanden Heuvel, a businessman and deputy ambassador to the United Nations during the Carter administration, revived interest in the park in 2005 and helped raise $34 million for it from private donors.

You enter Four Freedoms Park by climbing a 100-foot-wide staircase. At the top, your eye is guided by a tapering lawn and double rows of littleleaf linden trees to a mammoth, half-ton bronze bust of FDR that sits in a granite niche. The bust is an enlargement of the one that Roosevelt's mother commissioned in 1933 from Jo Davidson, the most celebrated American sculptor of the period.

Like Daniel Chester French's sculpture of a seated Lincoln, which awes visitors to the Lincoln Memorial, Davidson's bust of FDR makes it impossible to look elsewhere. We see a confident Roosevelt, but at the same time we see a president who knows America is in trouble. In Davidson's sculpture Roosevelt is not smiling. His lips are turned downward, and although his eyes are open, the determined look on his face suggests a leader deep in his own thoughts.

Carved into the south side of the granite niche that holds Davidson's sculpture is an excerpt from Roosevelt's four freedoms speech. No other writing from FDR appears to distract your attention. The surrounding granite walls, separated from each other by an inch of space that lets light through, are bare.

Four Freedoms Park ends in a small plaza that takes your gaze along water that continues its journey into the Atlantic. The result is a final reminder that FDR was addressing the world at large, not just America, when he spoke of the four freedoms.

Roosevelt's contemporary, the much-loved artist Norman Rockwell, helped make the four freedoms popular through illustrations of them that he painted for the Saturday Evening Post. Four million four freedoms posters were printed during the war, and when the "Four Freedoms" oil paintings went on a nationwide tour in 1943, they were seen by 1.2 million people and helped sell $132 million of war bonds.

Kahn's architecture doesn't evoke the nostalgia for days gone by that is central to Rockwell's paintings. But Kahn has given the four freedoms a new -- potentially more permanent -- chance to be understood by future generations. This achievement is not surprising from the architect whose signature work includes the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Texas.

Kahn's triumph on Roosevelt Island stems from his willingness to make iconic architecture serve the memory of a president who believed that America's ultimate foe in World War II was "international brutality" -- and that in the end, our values were crucial to victory.

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Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Their Last Battle: The Fight for The National World War II Memorial."

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