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The South Tip of Roosevelt Island: Ruminations on a Planned Memorial



Ed. note- UPDATES. Plans to build the memorial have advanced since I first wrote this post. See NYT City Room item by Sewell Chan, "Plans for Long-Stalled FDR Memorial Move Forward," September 25, 2008.

On June 25, 2009, according to an article in Architectural Record, "the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) voted 7 to 1 in favor of the proposal, with one member not present." Work is scheduled to begin in mid-August 2009.

2011 Update - See official site for Four Freedoms Park.

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Beyond the Renwick Ruins on the south end of Roosevelt Island, the island tapers to a point. Standing still on this rare unfinished land invites a sense of quiet wonder. Such a blessing, I thought, to discover a place still so natural in the midst of the dense metropolis, especially in the context of the city's building boom. Earlier in the day I had walked through many loud and busy construction sites in the Upper East Side, and I was grateful to find a measure of peace in this place.

I watched the river water brush up against the raw outcropping of the rocks beyond, and farther still, I could see what's known as U Thant Island, named for the UN Secretary General. Here, in this land just across the river from the United Nations complex, I could ponder the founding of the organization, the handsome structure, and the utopian prospects for global peace. With the ruins of the Smallpox Hospital behind me, I also found myself quietly commemorating the many immigrants who came to New York sadly stricken with disease.

For at least 35 years, an effort has been underway to construct architect Louis Kahn's planned memorial to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in this very place. For the island that was renamed in anticipation of the project, Kahn drew up a site-specific design that lined the triangular point with trees and ended with a walled room. Since Kahn's death in 1974, fundraisers have fallen short of their goal for the memorial. The island has since become home to many residents, and opinions about the project are divided. Southpoint Park, the larger park that encompasses the southern end, is in progress.

I'm a fan of contemporary architecture, sometimes difficult to admit, and I like the work of Louis Kahn. As an art-crazed Texas youth growing up in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, nothing excited me more than a visit to the light-infused galleries of Kahn's Kimbell Museum. After seeing My Architect, the moving personal documentary from 2003 by his son Nathaniel, I came to appreciate his work even more, despite being flabbergasted by the details of his personal life. I would love to visit his monumental National Assembly in Dacca in Bangladesh one day. I even think that the design of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California would make an excellent model for future Roosevelt Island housing. I'm also an admirer of FDR, and I intend to honor his memory by supporting progressive public policies.

I believe the decision to green light or oppose the Kahn FDR memorial should be shaped by the island residents themselves. That said, I believe this view at the end of Roosevelt Island is special and worth saving. I'm glad I visited. I believe the land in its natural state already invites a sense of wonder and commemoration.

See 2007 articles and images about the Kahn FDR memorial:
Architectural Record: Is Kahn's FDR Memorial Back on Track? July 9, 2007
New York Sun: Island May Yet Receive Kahn Memorial to Roosevelt July 20, 2007

Part of a longer series of posts about a walk on Roosevelt Island. Images at Flickr WOTBA.

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