WASHINGTON, D.C. - As it was a hot day in the nation’s capital, I almost passed up visiting the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial because it was some distance from the other memorials that I wanted to visit on the National Mall. Skipping the memorial would have been a big mistake.
It is unusual for me to visit a site without reading something about it first, but I hadn’t done my homework. I didn’t know what to expect, and I thought the first room was the whole memorial, with its sculpture of Roosevelt sitting in his wheelchair.
When the memorial was erected in 1997, disability activists complained that it didn’t show him confined to a wheelchair, a result of polio in 1921. This illness had been an important factor in who he was and what he had to overcome to serve as our 32nd president from 1933 to 1945.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Franklin’s illness…gave him strength and courage he had not had before. He had to think out the fundamentals of living and learn the greatest of all lessons - infinite patience and never-ending persistence."
As he wanted to project an image of strength in the difficult years of depression and war, he went to great lengths to ensure that in public his wheelchair was never shown. However, as attitudes had changed, the original designers responded to the protesters and added the statue of him in a wheelchair in 2001.
Once I stepped beyond Room 1, my response was, "Well, this is tremendous." The series of waterfalls, massive red granite rocks, striking sculptures, quiet pools and words of wisdom from Roosevelt engraved on the walls combined to form the most impressive memorial for an individual I have ever seen.
What are called rooms are granite-walled, open spaces with lovely waterfalls or fountains and a minimum of objects, making those that are there much more meaningful. The rooms stretch along the Tidal Basin across from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. I had the feeling of walking through several secluded spaces in contrast to standing earlier before an imposing structure such as the Lincoln Memorial.
Designer Lawrence Halprin set up the memorial as a series of five spaces, the first a Prologue Room and four other rooms, one for each of Roosevelt’s terms in office. The room commemorating his second term had the most impact on me. Here in a bread line stand five sad-faced figures obviously embarrassed by their plight. Nearby are an elderly couple who look hungry, and some distance away a man leans toward his radio as he listens to one of Roosevelt’s inspiring fireside chats.
About 30 percent of workers were unemployed in the early 1930s. As a child, I remember pulling my little red wagon as I walked downtown with my mother to pick up food from the relief place. She was embarrassed that we couldn’t produce enough food in our own garden but would deal with the shame if it meant food for my brother and me. My father earned some money that helped us survive working for the Works Progress Administration. Making work and food available for us was credited to Roosevelt. Along with our relatives and neighbors, my parents considered him one of America’s greatest men; and the Social Security program was among his many social and economic reforms.
In a third room is a large seated figure of Roosevelt, his shoulders covered in a robe, and his Scottish terrier Fala at his feet. The artist has captured the tired look that was the result of the demands the war placed on the president. In the fourth room is a magnificent statue of his wife, Eleanor, who did so much for human rights and often pushed Franklin into making decisions that benefited minorities.
One of the 21 quotations inscribed on the walls particularly impressed me. "I have seen war … I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded … I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed … I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war." Having been in trauma zones helping after the devastations caused by war, I am in complete agreement.