National Mall and Memorial Parks | FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT MEMORIAL

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his dog Fala

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his dog Fala

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is hands down the most unique memorial on or near the National Mall, or in Washington, D. C., for that matter. With a typical memorial, you can pick a spot and see everything simply by rotating your head from left to right. Walk up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and you’ll see Lincoln. Walk up the steps of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and you’ll see Jefferson. The Roosevelt Memorial, on the other hand, is more like a Roosevelt theme park—you must walk through it to see it. Laid out before you are scenes, quotes, and symbolic elements of the most defining moments in Roosevelt’s four presidential terms. Walk from one end to the other and you venture twelve years in time, from 1933 to 1945.

Section dates are engraved into the floor of the Roosevelt Memorial

Section dates are engraved into the floor of the Roosevelt Memorial

Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, was the first and only president to serve four terms, for the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution (passed in 1947) limited a person to two terms as elected president, and only one term as elected president if a person assumes office for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected president. Many of the very early presidents such as Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all self-limited themselves to two terms, feeling that any more was the path to monarchy (Washington did not seek a third term due to his age). A few of the later presidents—Grant, Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson—tried for a third term, but all lost. The amendment does not prohibit a man from serving three terms, only from being elected for three terms. Lyndon Johnson, for example, took office after Kennedy was assassinated and was thus not elected. He could have been elected two more times since he took office more than two years after Kennedy’s inauguration in 1960.

Congress authorized the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in 1955, and after winning a design contest, Lawrence Halprin was chosen as the memorial’s designer in 1974. However, authorizing and funding are two different things, and it wasn’t until the early 1990s that Congress finally came up with the money that allowed construction to begin. Bill Clinton presided over the dedication ceremony on May 2, 1997.

The memorial is located on the west side of the Tidal Basin. If you wish to walk through it in chronological order, enter from the north side near the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and walk south towards the Jefferson Memorial. As mentioned, the memorial is made up of sections known as “rooms,” each depicting a term of Roosevelt’s presidency. There is also a Prologue Room, the first that you come to. Here you will find the Information Center, a large, stand-alone building that houses an information desk, book and gift store, and a small exhibit that outlines the events that took place during Roosevelt’s presidency.

Timeline of Roosevelt's presidency inside the Information Center

Timeline of Roosevelt’s presidency inside the Information Center

If one politician claims the sky is blue, another will certainly say that it is red. We visit a memorial on the National Mall and think, “This is wonderful,” never realizing how many silly arguments and controversies came about for it to exist. Thus was the case with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the Prologue Room, which was not part of the original monument. The designers chose not to show Roosevelt in a wheelchair since his disability was hidden from the public as much as possible during his four terms as president. Of course disabled-rights groups were up in arms about that decision and controversy ensued. In Room Three is a sculpture of Roosevelt and his dog, the only actual depiction of Roosevelt in the original monument. A cloak hid his chair (a standard chair, not a wheelchair). In an attempt to appease the disabled-rights groups, castors were added to the back legs. However, this symbolic effort didn’t do the trick, prompting the National Organization on Disability to raise money for artist Robert Graham to create a new sculpture depicting Roosevelt clearly seated in a wheelchair. The sculpture, and the Prologue Room, was added to the memorial in 2001.

Roosevelt in a wheelchair sculpture was added to the memorial in 2001

Roosevelt in a wheelchair sculpture was added to the memorial in 2001

Room One covers the first term of Roosevelt’s presidency, from 1933 to 1937. These years were marked by the Great Depression, and on the walls you will find seven Roosevelt quotes from this period. There is not much else to see here other than a bas-relief plaque of Roosevelt’s inauguration underneath the famous “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” quote. The sculpture was done by Robert Graham, while the lettering here and throughout the memorial was done by stone carver John Benson, a man who specialized in lettering monuments. His son Nick carved the quotes at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and the World War II Memorial.

Room One of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Room One of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Room Two covers the years 1937-1941, years when Roosevelt’s New Deal helped lift America out of the Great Depression. This is perhaps the most interesting of the rooms, with three sculptures by George Segal on display. Two of the works are along one wall. One depicts a downtrodden couple and the other a row of men standing in a bread line. Between the two sculptures is the quote, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” The Breadline sculpture is a crowd favorite. Tourists like to stand in line with the five figures and get their photos made.

Sculptures by George Segal in Room Two of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Sculptures by George Segal in Room Two of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Breadline sculpture by George Segal

Breadline sculpture by George Segal

A third sculpture shows a man listening to one of Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats on his radio. Roosevelt was the first president to address the mass public via radio.

Listening to Roosevelt's fireside chat

Listening to Roosevelt’s fireside chat

In addition to the sculptures are six columns wrapped in bronze bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the New Deal. On a nearby wall are these same images on sheets of bronze. The idea is that the columns are the rollers of a printing press, while the wall is the paper. Notice that the images on the columns are sunken in—negatives—and those on the wall protrude from the metal—positives.

Scenes from the New Deal

Scenes from the New Deal

A waterfall in Room Two represents the damns built by the Tennessee Valley Authority, one project of the New Deal. It is interesting to note that in the opening days of the memorial that people were invited to wade into the pools, but this was quickly stopped after the National Park Service feared people would get injured.

Room Two waterfall at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Room Two waterfall at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (photo by Liza Lagman Sperl)

Room Three covers 1941-1945, a time dominated by World War II. Here you will find the large sculpture by Neil Estern of Roosevelt in which his chair is concealed by a cloak. His dog Fala is also part of the sculpture. Notice that the top of Fala and the hands and knee of Roosevelt have a gold shine to them while the rest of the sculpture is green. The green “patina” comes from the oxidation of the bronze metal. The gold shine comes from the patina having been worn off by all of the people who sit on Roosevelt’s knee, hold his hand, or hug Fala when getting their photos made.

Sasha has her picture taken with Fala

Sasha has her picture taken with Fala

The waterfall in this area is the most turbulent. Large granite blocks lie strewn around the area, some engraved with the quote, “I hate war.” This disarray is in sharp contrast to the orderly waterfall in Room Two.

Waterfall in Room Three of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Waterfall in Room Three of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Room Three of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Room Three of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Room Four covers only the year 1945, for Roosevelt died on April 12th, a little less than three months into his fourth term as president. The main focus is a bronze bas-relief sculpture by Leonard Baskin of Roosevelt’s funeral procession titled The Funeral Cortege. Below is a pool of still water.

The Funeral Cortege by Leonard Baskin

The Funeral Cortege by Leonard Baskin

Also in the room is a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt standing next to the emblem of the United Nations, an organization her husband helped create. She was a member of the first American delegation to the United Nations and is honored with a statue because of her contributions to the UN’s Human Rights causes.

Eleanor Roosevelt sculpture

Eleanor Roosevelt sculpture

As you exit the memorial you will see one last quote. This was taken from Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address in which he spoke of the “Four Freedoms” worth fighting for, thus alluding to why the United States might one day have to enter World War II.

Exit of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Exit of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is open year-round, 24 hours a day. Park Rangers are on hand from 9:30 AM to 10 PM to answer questions (except for Christmas day). The National Park Service offers daily programs that rotate throughout the memorials on the Mall. To find out what sort of activities are going on when you visit, see the National Park Service’s Calendar web page for the National Mall and Memorial Parks.

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Last updated on April 26, 2020
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