The FDR Memorial has proven to be one of the most popular of the presidential memorials since it opened in 1997. Its popularity has to do as much with its design as the man it honors. This 7 1/2-acre outdoor memorial stretches out, mazelike, rather than rising up, across the stone-paved floor. Granite walls define the four “galleries,” each representing a different term in FDR’s presidency, from 1933 to 1945. Architect Lawrence Halprin’s design includes waterfalls, sculptures (by Leonard Baskin, John Benson, Neil Estern, Robert Graham, Thomas Hardy, and George Segal), and Roosevelt’s own words carved into the stone.
The many displays of cascading water can sound thunderous, as the fountains recycle an astonishing 100,000 gallons of water every minute. The presence of gushing fountains and waterfalls isn’t a random choice. Instead, they reflect FDR’s appreciation for the importance of H2O. As someone afflicted by polio, he understood the rehabilitative powers of water exercises and established the Warm Springs Institute in Georgia to help others with polio. As president, FDR supported several water projects, including the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
When the memorial first opened, adults and children alike arrived in bathing suits and splashed around on warm days. Park rangers don’t allow that anymore, but they do allow you to dip your feet in the various pools. A favorite time to visit is at night, when dramatic lighting reveals the waterfalls and statues against the dark parkland.
Conceived in 1946, the FDR Memorial had been in the works for 50 years. Part of the delay in its construction can be attributed to the president himself: FDR had told his friend Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, “If they are to put up any memorial to me, I should like it to be placed in the center of that green plot in front of the Archives Building. I should like it to consist of a block about the size [of this desk].” In fact, such a plaque sits in front of the National Archives. Friends and relatives struggled to honor Roosevelt’s request to leave it at that, but Congress and national sentiment overrode them.
As with other presidential memorials, this one opened to some controversy. Advocates for people with disabilities were incensed that the memorial sculptures did not show the president in a wheelchair, which he used after he contracted polio. President Clinton asked Congress to allocate funding for an additional statue portraying a wheelchair-bound FDR. You will now see a small statue of FDR in a wheelchair, placed at the very front of the memorial, to the right as you approach the first gallery. Step inside the gift shop to view a replica of Roosevelt’s wheelchair, as well as one of the rare photographs of the president sitting in a wheelchair. The memorial is probably the most accessible tourist attraction in the city; as at most of the National Park Service locations, wheelchairs are available for free use on-site. Rangers conduct interpretive tours every hour on the hour. Thirty minutes is sufficient time for a visit.