Louis Kahn was an American architect trained in the Beaux-Arts tradition, Franklin Delano Roosevelt an architect of the post-war world, and, to honor both men’s triumphs, Four Freedoms Park—a Kahn-designed memorial dedicated to the late president—stands today as a declaration of America’s optimistic spirit.
The park sits on the southernmost tip of New York’s Roosevelt Island, offering views of the city’s skylines and local landmarks. Its entrance is marked by five copper beech trees and a lawn—crisp, neatly cut, and vibrantly green—that forms an acute triangle, which points to the southern hemisphere like a compass needle. Surrounding the lawn are littleleaf linden trees, set in allées. Sloping paths reach down from the lawn’s edge to the river’s surface. As visitors walk south toward the end of the island, they’ll find the focal point of the park, a 1,050-pound bronze bust of President Roosevelt by Jo Davidson. Mounted in a niche, the bust stands at the door of what Kahn called “the room,” a 60-foot open square of granite that looks out across the East River at the Untied Nations complex on Manhattan’s east side. Which is fitting, as President Roosevelt was credited with coining the term “United Nations.” (Planning for the U.N. began during his administration, too.)
When Kahn finished his architectural designs in the early 1970s, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and New York City Mayor John Lindsay announced plans for Four Freedoms Park. But after Kahn’s death in 1974, the project was put on pause. In fact, for a few decades, the park’s future seemed highly unlikely. Backed into a corner and on the verge of bankruptcy after Rockefeller left New York for Washington to become vice president, the city didn’t have the financial resources and political leadership it needed to complete the memorial. The delay turned into a full discontinuation. In 2005, however, all that changed when former United States ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel renewed the effort to finish the memorial. He spearheaded the revival and helped raise $53 million for the project. And, in October 2013, the park opened to the public.
Four Freedoms Park is a memorial, but its memorial tribute is an exercise in subtlety. The park is meant to raise spirits and to honor the freedoms of speech and worship and the freedoms from want and fear—freedoms that define America today.