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How a Dying Congressman's Words
Gave Life to a Shrine

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 1997; Page A01

FDR Memorial
David Capozzi tours the memorial. He works for the federal agency that assesses Americans with Disability (ADA) requirements. By Dayna Smith/The Washington Post
The congressmen gathered in the small hearing room did not know the man before them was dying. Maybe Claude Pepper would not even admit it to himself.

He did know that day, April 5, 1989, would be crucial to the long-delayed plan to build a memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt. After years of talk, the hearing would determine whether the House Appropriations subcommittee would free up the money.

The memorial to be dedicated on the Tidal Basin on Friday is the result of plans that lurched and languished for more than four decades. At times, there was little enthusiasm in Congress for the costly and controversial project. The hearing was at one of those times.

engraving
Master stone carver John Benson puts finishing touches on some of the engraving at the FDR Memorial.
By Frank Johnston/The Washington Post
The committee members went into the room to find Pepper already seated there. It was an old Roosevelt trick, to avoid the chagrin of an entrance hobbled by infirmity. He had cancer. That morning, he left his bed at Walter Reed hospital, determined to help save the memorial. At 88, Pepper, a Democrat from Florida, was the oldest member of Congress. Pepper was proud to call himself a Roosevelt man, proud to be a New Dealer.

His basset-hound Southern drawl carried the gentlemanly courtesies of Congress that he so loved.

"Mr. Chairman, it was here, in the capital of America, not far from this very spot, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood on March 4, 1933, and uttered those imperishable words that lifted a nation out of the lethargy of despair and set it on the road to a new hope and prosperity and promise and strength.

engraving
Laurinda Lacey's fingers help her "see" miniature images in relief on a wall of the FDR Memorial.
By Dayna Smith/The Washington Post
"It was here, in this capital, that this man led America in the establishment of the vastest array of social programs that have done more to help needy people than government has done in the 200-year history of this nation. It was here, that with Winston Churchill, [he] led the forces of freedom in the world and exterminated the most brutal assault upon human dignity and freedom that are known to man."

Pepper closed with a plea.

"Many of us who are still here remember President Roosevelt, lived in his time. We would like to show our gratitude to what Franklin Roosevelt meant to America, what he did for this beloved country," Pepper said. "And besides that, there ought to be a memorial to those who come after us. We can't live to tell all about Franklin Roosevelt."

"It was probably the most eloquent speech I ever remember," said John Parsons, a National Park Service official who had been watching the lethargic FDR Memorial proposal for more than a decade. "He left the chairman and the other committee members speechless."

The committee appropriated $5.8 million, and the memorial was underway. Within two months of this appearance, his last public plea, Pepper was dead.

Such is the near-miss history of the Roosevelt shrine, the memorial that almost wasn't. Other presidential memorials have met delays -- construction on the Washington Monument, for example, stopped for 26 years for lack of money and finally resumed with a different colored stone.

But the Roosevelt Memorial seemed plagued by both neglect and excess. At times too grandiose, at times too unassuming, the memorial was almost forgotten before it was built.

The project began with a handicap that almost doomed it, one said to have been delivered by Roosevelt himself. Four years before his death, Roosevelt called Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter to his office to deliver some morbid instructions. According to Frankfurter's diary, Roosevelt said:

"If any memorial is to be erected to me, 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 limestone or granite or what-not, but I want it plain without any ornamentation, with the simple carving, `In memory of . . . ' "

Whenever plans for a grand Roosevelt memorial came up, somebody always dredged up those words and pointed to the block memorial that was placed in front of the National Archives in 1965. The Roosevelt instructions became such an annoying thorn that one chairman of the Roosevelt Memorial Commission testily suggested there was no proof of what Roosevelt said; they had only the word of a Supreme Court justice.

But the year after Roosevelt's death, a resolution was introduced to Congress to create the commission. The resolution passed nine years later, in 1955, and a bipartisan panel of eight members of Congress and four others was selected.

Admittedly, they faced a weighty task: to pick a design suitable to join company with the Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, one that would all but complete the geometry of great monuments that so defines the nation's capital. It would be enough to give any landscape architect the shivers.

The site was long preserved for a place of honor. West Potomac Park is built on mud flats, filled in by the Army Corps of Engineers between 1874 and 1913. But in 1901, a commission established to reexamine L'Enfant's expansive blueprint for Washington took another look at the site. After a grand tour of Europe to study the great cities there, the McMillan Commission reaffirmed L'Enfant's plan and named three spots for future presidential memorials. Two are now occupied by the Lincoln and Jefferson monuments. The third is the site of the FDR Memorial.

The memorial commission set about the task in a Rooseveltian democratic fashion. It held a design competition unusual in that it invited both professionals and amateurs to compete. The competition drew 574 entries ranging, according to one account of the time, from "brilliant . . . to shockingly bad."

The judges may have been rattled by their task. In 1960, they chose an immense design that looked like great slabs of paper made from granite, standing on their edges, containing engraved memos from FDR. The plan was universally reviled and dubbed "Instant Stonehenge."

The commission then tried a more select competition of renowned architects, and in 1966 it chose the entry of a noted designer, Marcel Breuer. In the eyes of many, it was not much better. It consisted of seven huge, triangular stone pieces in a pinwheel arrangement.

In 1974, the memorial commission invited noted architects to try again, and it selected Lawrence Halprin from the lot. The San Francisco landscape architect has been working on the memorial for the succeeding 23 years. His design has shrunk since it was first introduced -- it is now about half the size of his original design, which was criticized as putting too much hard granite on the pastoral setting of Cherry Tree Walk.

The Halprin plan drew fire in 1979 from then-Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus as extravagantly expensive to build and maintain. With the criticisms of Andrus, and the thunder of budget deficits bowling about Congress, the FDR Memorial plans went into suspended animation. Some said the project was dead.

"I had given up hope on it at that point," Parsons said. "Every time it came up, it seemed we had other priorities. We were trying to cut the national debt, and this seemed like a luxury."

"The artists have lived with this through all these years," said Dorann Gunderson, who became executive director of the memorial commission four years ago. The five sculptors were chosen in 1977. "There were many years when they probably didn't think it was going to happen."

Pepper's appearance changed that. After the initial appropriation won by the Florida representative, Congress kept the project going with a total of $42.5 million in public funds, to which private contributions have added $5.6 million of $10 million being sought.

He won the approval without really answering the many misgivings -- about the cost, the annual maintenance expense, the minimal car parking and poor public transportation service to the memorial, the impact of perhaps 2 million visitors on the relatively small area, the rerouting of auto traffic around the basin. And, of course, the misgivings of the man the memorial honors.

Construction, overseen by the National Park Service, began in 1994. It went so quickly that the announcement of the dedication took Washingtonians by surprise. The design appears simple, but construction actually was quite complex, requiring intricate plans to piece together 31,269 pieces of cut granite and 10 miles of steel put in pilings 80 feet deep to support 4,500 tons of stone.

"Pepper lived to know" that he had gotten the project moving, said his former aide, Frances Campbell. "He believed in what FDR believed in and believed in Roosevelt's approach.

"It meant a great deal to him to see the memorial to Roosevelt," said Campbell, who directs the Claude Pepper Foundation in Tallahassee. "I'm so happy this is finally being dedicated, after he had made such a last, heroic effort. How proud he would be now!"

THE FDR MEMORIAL: A MONUMENTAL EFFORT

More than 50 years after it was first proposed, the FDR Memorial opened May 2, having sidestepped many obstacles along the way. Here is a glimpse of the rocky road from 1946 to today.

July 1946: Resolution to create FDR Memorial Commission introduced in Congress.

August 1955: Congress approves FDR Memorial Commission.

September 1959: Tidal Basin site picked, approved by Congress.

December 1960: Winner of first design competition announced.

February 1962: Winning design rejected by Commission of Fine Arts.

April 1965: Second design abandoned because of public criticism.

January 1967: Third design rejected by Commission of Fine Arts.

May 1974: Lawrence Halprin picked to design monument.

September 1977: Sculptors selected.

1979: Commission asks Halprin to modify design.

April 1989: Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) leaves sickbed to appeal for appropriations.

September 1991: Groundbreaking ceremony.

1992: Congress tells commission to raise $10 million in private funds.

October 1994: Construction begins on memorial.

November 1994: Congress increases federal appropriation, bringing total public money to $42.5 million.

May 2, 1997: FDR Memorial to be dedicated.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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