On October 17th, 2012, FDR Four Freedoms Park opened, but history takes us back farther – to when seeds vibrated into plans and ideals took shape in green grass, linden trees and streams of granite.
by David Stone
On a chilly spring afternoon, I walked down the meadow in the as yet unopened park with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. Mud caked our shoes. Workers were finishing off planting the linden trees along the borders. The bust of FDR at the base of the meadow was so new that we were forbidden to photograph it.
Republicans now controlled the House of Representatives where Maloney toiled on behalf of Roosevelt Island and Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“It must be pretty unpleasant working in Washington, these days,” I said, but rather than frown in agreement, her face lit up.
Spreading her arms wide, she declared, “Not when I can do something like this!”
Maloney had been able to set aside half-a-million dollars from the federal budget and put it into building FDR Four Freedoms Park. It opened six months later, but its promise exceeded even her vision.
A Park Opened, But the Door Moved Slowly
“I will take you a bit further back in history to April 1972,” wrote Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., “when my late husband FDR, Jr. was able to announce that Four Freedoms Foundation had secured an agreement from both Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor Lindsay to build a memorial to President Roosevelt on Roosevelt Island.”
The widow of the president’s son serves on the board of Four Freedoms Park Conservancy and is Honorary Chair.
“Since my involvement began in the project in the mid-80s,” she added, “I have watched the project grow from a dream, and renewed almost every decade since now, to be what now I consider a place of singular beauty and repose unmatched in New York City.”
Gina Pollara, who served as Executive Director of the park from 2006, during construction, until 2013, added perspective. “When we started the project, it was not guaranteed that we would be successful. Sometimes it still appears to me as if it’s a mirage. Before the park was built, this little tip of Roosevelt Island was only known to the residents. Now it is shared with people from all over the world.”
“Kahn’s genius was revealed…”
“It gives me great joy when I go to the park and see so many visitors,” Pollara adds. “It’s always fun to show some of the hidden aspects of the design” by legendary architect Louis Kahn.
“I always knew that we would discover things about the design that weren’t immediately evident from the drawings. We could tell from the plan, for example, that Kahn was creating a one-point perspective in the landscape using the converging Linden trees with the head of Roosevelt as the focal point. I’ll never forget the day after the sod was laid when my colleague, John Conaty, called me from the bottom of the garden and said ‘You have to get down here right away. You’re not going to believe this. It’s a rectangle!’”
Before Four Freedoms Park Opened, There Were Politics
Jessica Lappin, now Executive Director at the Alliance for Downtown New York, was a City Council Member, then. She serves on the FDR Conservancy’s board.
“When Sally Minard and Bill Vanden Heuvel first came to me with the goal of finally building the memorial, I loved the idea immediately,” she recalls. “But we faced stiff skepticism in those early days. As we were building the case in the press, with elected leaders, and local stakeholders, I remember bringing Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey to the southern tip of the island for a tour. And he told me, essentially, good luck and this will never happen. Which I enjoyed teasing Mike Bloomberg about at the park’s opening day!”
But Lappin had another indelible memory.
“I also have very fond memories of Hillary Clinton’s presidential announcement speech at the park. It was electric and magical, being there with my boys, cheering on her historic candidacy. The day was beautiful and the location couldn’t have been more perfect.”
The park matured, spreading its wings across the planet.
Not All Perfect Though
“I love Four Freedoms Park and have always felt connected to it,” said Roosevelt Island Community Board 8 representative Lynne Strong-Shinozaki. But the affection was, at times, bittersweet.
“The park which I’ve always supported – and I might add always thought was beautiful – was not acceptable to me for Roosevelt Island because they were not planning on it being fully Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant.
“I just could not feel good about the park knowing that the very people whose lives could be forever impacted by its beauty and majesty would not be considered important enough to have full access to it. That the very nature of the wonderful community on Roosevelt Island, which was founded in concepts of inclusivity that would be wholly ignored.”
But times change.
“This story actually has a wonderful ending,” Strong-Shinozaki says. “This incredible gem of Roosevelt Island is now an ADA compliant park and it’s sister monument, the FDR Hope Memorial, just a few feet away, beautifully depicting Roosevelt in a wheelchair with a rare smile on his face reaching out to a beautiful young girl who is also disabled.”
Before the park opened, it was a place for secrets…
“My son and I loved to explore the wilds of the southern tip, just opposite the United Nations,” says Roosevelt Islander Jim Luce. “July Fourth was a special time when the very southern end of the island would be roped off for “VIPs” to watch the fireworks directly in front of them. It was delightful, with picnic food all around.
“One foggy autumn morn I recall walking the overgrown and hilly southern tip with my visiting cousin to discuss a family tragedy. The space was completely desolate and perfect for dark family secrets…
“I first saw Roosevelt Island from the living room of Henry Luce III on Sutton Place. Intrigued at the wildness of the southern tip, I journeyed by Tram to explore and fell in love. There was not much to see, but I felt a thrill in being in ‘the middle of nowhere in the middle of New York City.'”
Much later, teamed up with Strong-Shinozaki, RIOC CEO Susan Rosenthal and the park’s Executive Director Howard Axel, he helped host a vibrant Cherry Blossom Festival on the steps. The event sold out but brought over 50,000 people to tour the Island’s Cherry Blossoms.
The Future is Diversity
“I’ve been glad to see the park offering varied programming, and in the past my office has partnered with the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy to provide more information on the park during my Off-site Constituent Hours,” said State Senator José Serrano.
Serrano is Chair of the State Senate committee that oversees State Parks. “It’s very meaningful to have a special park like Four Freedoms as part of my district,” he said.
“I was pleased that recently the park addressed issues of accessibility to ensure that everyone can enjoy the entirety of the park. During the pandemic, I’m certain many used this space as a refuge for safe outdoor recreation and contemplation. As Roosevelt Island continues its rapid growth as a destination, Four Freedoms’s cultural and architectural significance are a draw for residents and visitors alike, and I look forward to seeing how the park continues to evolve.”
“There are so many memories and so many firsts,” Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., reflected. “When linden trees were all finally installed and I would be there in the mud, wearing the mandatory construction hat, seeing the first school buses to arrive in 2014 bringing students from all over the city to learn about FDR, to the times over the last year when I would take the tram in the morning and have the park almost to myself on a gray morning.
“And I have so many memories of being in the very southern part of the park and being thrilled and gratified as people of all ages read, I would think for the first time in many cases, the inscribed Four Freedoms speech and thought – This is why we labored to build this monument.”
But she had her eyes on the future too.
“My only suggestion is for others is to persevere by remembering that in any project of this scale, by necessity, there will be setbacks, roadblocks, and plenty of opponents. All that probably means you are on the right path!”
“I hope the park will continue to be more and more of a community resource for both Island residents and Upper East siders, Jessica Lappin added. “We saw that trend grow during the pandemic, as locals embraced it as a precious outdoor space. I hope the park will be even open and accessible for New Yorkers, whether that be through programming, events, or just being a lovely spot for relaxation with some of the world’s best views.”
But there was something special that few noticed…
Looking ahead, Gina Pollara offered a contemporary insight that might be prophetic.
“Every year on January 6th,” she recalled, “I would email or call (Founder) Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel to wish him a happy anniversary, as that day marks the day FDR delivered the famous Four Freedoms Speech, the essential text of which is carved at the heart of the memorial.
“This is a fact little mentioned in the news when we remember the horrific events of January 6th, 2021. Let this historic landmark be an ever-present reminder of what we need to strive for in this country and in the world. FDR’s message was one of hope and optimism. Let it stand forever as the true essence of democracy and what still remains to be achieved.”
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