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The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial You See Over There By the Tidal Basin Is Not the Original


The original Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Photo by Pndfam05 via Wikipedia.

If you scroll through the National Park Service list of national park birthdays, you’ll see a September entry that seems more than a bit odd. The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the list informs us, was established on September 1, 1959. Whoa! Can that possibly be true? The memorial to FDR was established a lot more recently than that, wasn’t it?

Indeed, a quick check of the record shows that the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial that sits on 7.5 acres of prime land near the Tidal Basin’s Cherry Tree Walk was dedicated only 11 years ago (on May 2, 1997, to be more precise).

But that heavily-visited presidential commemorative with all its wonderful statuary and reliefs in four “outdoor rooms” is not the original. The first Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial installed in our nation’s capital was only a simple plaque (see accompanying photo) attached to a marble block situated on a lawn near the corner of 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

The inscription, quoted verbatim here, reveals that this humble memorial is exactly what FDR wanted:

In September 1941 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called his friend, Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter, to the White House and asked the justice to remember the wish he then expressed. “If any memorial is erected to me, I know exactly what I should like it to be. I should like it to consist of a block about the size of this (putting his hand on his desk) and placed in the center of that green plot in front of the Archives building. I don’t care what it is made of, whether of limestone or granite or whatnot, but I want it plain without any ornamentation, with the simple carving ‘n memory of ____________’ ”.


Getting any sort of memorial to FDR installed in Washington was not an easy thing. Following Roosevelt’s death there was a lengthy round of dickering about the kind of memorial that the federal government should create for FDR, his personal wishes notwithstanding. Congress authorized the establishment of a Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Commission on August 11, 1955, and on September 1, 1959, it enacted legislation authorizing the Commission to announce a design competition. (For reasons this author does not fully understand, the National Park Service now considers September 1, 1959, to be the official birthday of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and that is the way it is listed with the other components of the National Park System in the aforementioned “park birthday” list.)

FDR’s family, especially his daughter Anna Roosevelt Halsted, didn’t like the winning design and expressed concerns about the divisive nature of criticism that might attend the establishment of a memorial too soon after Roosevelt’s death. (Millions of Americans intensely disliked FDR, and many still do, mostly because of the New Deal programs he initiated.) In the end, Congress decided to ignore the FDR memorial issue, at least for a few years.

Ignoring FDR’s wishes for a simple memorial didn’t sit well with many of his friends and associates. On April 12, 1965, exactly 20 years after FDR’s death, a group of them used private funds to install the simple plaque that is the subject of this article.

If you want to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the creation of the original memorial, be sure read: Isabelle Hyman, “Marcel Breuer and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Dec., 1995), pp. 446-458.

Epilogue: More than 30 years after the original memorial was installed on a small block of marble in that little park on Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress finally got around to building a big, prominently situated -- and may we say much more presidential -- memorial for the country’s 32nd president. We’ll have more to say about this memorial, but I think we’ll hold off on the anniversary celebration until its “real” birthday on May 2nd.


My aunt last year gave me a locally-published small book about the history of the logging community & industry on the "West End" of the Olympic Peninsula (NW Washington State). The book and all the stories & (many!) photographs are centered around the slightly-legendary town of Forks (where she lives and I was born).

Prominent in this delightful book is the story of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt coming through in the 1930s on a tour of the Olympic Peninsula.

An interesting story and attendant photo relate a plan by the local booster-squad to do something special for the President. They wanted his motorcade to stop along the road, where they would demonstrate the topping of a large, tall tree (to make a natural spar).

The President's managers nixed the plan. No, it is too dangerous for the President to be halted at a prearranged location. Evil-doers would then know where to find him, immobilized.

So the local enthusiasts found a way to halt the motorcade at a previously undetermined location - that is, they neglected to inform the Secret Service about it. With the President stopped, they would then put on a show for him.

Roosevelt was scheduled to make a side-trip to the Quileute tribe village of La Push. This involved going past the Rayonier timber company rail sorting yard. At a rail-sort they had hundreds of rail car loads of logs, and they would "sort" them into separate trains consisting of sensible lots of product. Basically, it means moving numerous trains back & forth a short distance. Move train A out of the way a short distance and park it briefly, then move train B into the position previously occupied by A, then move train C ... and so on. Could go on for hours. Sorting & shuffling cars in & out of the different trains as ya go.

The road that went past the sorting yard was frequently blocked by a train of log-cars parked just outside the yard. Sure enough, when Roosevelt's motorcade wound along the little road to La Push - here was a train sitting across the road. Imagine that.

And moreover, in the adjacent timber-stand, here was a big, isolated tree with a climber high up, cutting out the top. When you cut the top out of a big tree, the combination of lateral thrust from the toppling top, and the windage-resistance from all the foliage, pushes the long, tall & cleanly-stripped spar-trunk sidewise quite some distance. As the top falls away, the bare spar then whipsaws back & forth quite dramatically ... with the tree-climber & faller roped to the very top of it (generally hollering, waving his hat, etc).

The President's men were having fits. They could not find anyone to get the train off the road. But Franklin was having a fine time, watching the show. It was gradually becoming evident that the boys from Washington (D.C.) had been had. Then Roosevelt exacerbated the situation by demanding, "Bring me that man!". And so he was, of course - shaking hands with the President, the two sharing great big smiles.

With the cameras popping away and media-hacks (Where did these guys come from?!) getting their scoop. Then the train obligingly rolled aside, and the tour continued on to La Push.

A prize photograph on the cover of the book.

This was, of course, FDR's inspection for the proposed Olympic National Park.

I'm impressed that you gave credit to the Wiki photographer. I'm sure he appreciates that. :^)
Interesting subject. It's always nice to be remembered.

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