By ULA ILNYTZKY
NEW YORK — It’s been nearly 40 years since New York City started planning a memorial to President Franklin Roosevelt on an island in the East River. Welfare Island was renamed Roosevelt Island, and American architect Louis Kahn was commissioned to design a park honoring the 32nd president.
The memorial park was never realized — until now.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, on the southern tip of 2-mile-long Roosevelt Island between the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens, is being dedicated Wednesday in a ceremony attended by dignitaries including former President Bill Clinton and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The park is named after Roosevelt’s Jan. 6, 1941, State of the Union address, known as the Four Freedoms Speech. Given before America got involved in World War II, Roosevelt said the way to justify the enormous sacrifice of war was to create a world centered on four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression; freedom of worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. The words were later incorporated into the charter of the United Nations, which Roosevelt helped create.
The park consists of a 4-acre triangular expanse of green, flanked by 120 littleleaf Linden trees leading to a colossal bronze bust of Roosevelt at the threshold of a square white-granite open-air plaza.
The statue is an enlargement of a 28-inch bust of Roosevelt, also a New York governor, created by American portrait sculptor Jo Davidson. It sits in a stone niche on the back of which a passage from the Four Freedoms speech is carved. The statue sits a mere 300 yards across the river from the United Nations headquarters.
“We hope visitors of different ages will understand that the four freedoms are the core values of democracy and that each generation has to be sure to protect them,” said former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. William vanden Heuvel, chairman of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park LLC.
The park will open to the public once arrangements for its operation and maintenance are final, officials said.
Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay first announced creation of the memorial park and appointed Kahn as its architect in 1973. Vanden Heuvel, 82, who was there that day, said Kahn completed the drawings a year later but died of a heart attack. That same year, Rockefeller became vice president, and the city verged on bankruptcy. With no money, the park was shelved.
The project was revived by vanden Heuvel in 2005 after an Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Architect,” about Kahn by his son, Nathaniel, brought renewed interest to the memorial.
Over the next seven years, $53 million was raised, $34 million from private donors. The rest came from the city, $11 million, and the state, $8 million.
The park had been embroiled in a legal dispute with two of its major donors over how prominently their names would be displayed at the site. The Alphawood Foundation, which donated $10.8 million, reached an undisclosed settlement, while the Reed Foundation, which gave $2.9 million, won a court judgment for its name to be engraved in an area near the memorial bust as spelled out in a contract. The park had argued that “such a placement would dishonor a great president and defile Kahn’s great work.”
In the next several years, the park hopes to transform a nearby abandoned 19th-century smallpox hospital into a visitor’s center. About 15,000 people live on the northern end of the island, which is reachable by tram or subway. The park plans to work closely with Cornell University, which is planning a graduate center on the island, on a nearby dock to transport people via water taxi and ferry.