The Winds of War – Freedom x 4 (New York, USA)

By Ian Cochrane, February 25, 2013

To the west, lay a somehow insignificant cityscape: the stacked steel and glass profile of a floating Manhattan. We’re among 7700 tonnes of precision-cut gleaming white stone taken from 12,100 tonnes of quarried granite: an architect’s melding of modern imagination and ancient form, the 1.5-hectare Franklin D Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park.

I’m reminded of the bridge of a great white battleship. Roosevelt’s 1933 bronze bust stares into a cold wind straight off the North Atlantic. The bust sits in a three sided alcove on a raised table of solid granite; the walls 4m-tall. At half a tonne and 700mm high, the bust is larger than life.

Initially known as `Blackwell’, then `Welfare Island’, this island was finally advocated – by a 1970  New York Times editorial – as a fitting site for a monument to Roosevelt. The 3km-long by 240m-wide island was renamed yet again in 1973; the architect, Estonian-born Louis I Kahn, presenting his ambitious vision for a memorial to a president he revered.

I first heard of this place back in East Village. “Hey, what you got on today?” demanded Cam, an architecture student from Colorado and the owner of our gentrified studio apartment. “There’s somethin’ you just gotta see, man,” he pleaded. “A cool piece of work.” He was praising Four Freedoms Park, pulling a booklet from a cluttered kitchen shelf and slapping it down on the table. “You are sooo lucky, dude, this park has only been open since October!”

Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island, New York

Four Freedoms Park – Roosevelt Island, New York

It was Franklin Roosevelt who addressed US Congress in 1941, alerting the country to the threat of Nazi world domination and the necessity for war, passionately appealing to Americans’ belief in freedom. Cam, less than half my age, reminded me that Roosevelt was struck down with infantile paralysis at age 39, was elected President four times and led the USA through the Great Depression and WW2. To reinforce his point, our young landlord took a faded cutting from a battered folder: a black-and-white picture of a suited and hatted man reading a newspaper while standing by a store on the corner of West 40th Street. The caption carried dire news from across the Atlantic. ‘Nazi Army Now 75 Miles from Paris – May 18, 1940’. That night – with Cam out partying – I shared a bottle of his cognac with my girlfriend, absorbed by the Four Freedoms story.

It’s winter and we’ve checked out the New York weather forecast, taking Cam’s advice and heading for the subway next morning. Alighting at the Island, we’ve walked south along the Manhattan side of the East River shoreline, a paved path edged by bare trees and park seats, under Queensboro Bridge and past the Coler-Goldwater Hospital. We’ve come to a gate in a black iron picket fence, passing the stone walled ruins of a smallpox hospital; a reminder of the island’s past life, and a soon to be visitor centre.

The park entrance rises like a Mayan pyramid – a wide flight of pale granite stairs – at its foot a row of five copper-beech trees aligned with the stone ruins. At the top is a raised plaza enclosed in a low granite wall. It’s an elongated triangle, with a central panel of lawn and surrounding paths of 261,000 cobblestones. Kahn’s grand funnel design has directed our line of sight between the paved avenues of 120 littleleaf linden trees to the intended focal point, the bust of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

New York City purchased the island in 1928. The road to the completion of Four Freedoms Park was tortuous, with a 99-year lease approved forty years later. A Kahn model was delivered to New York in 1974. The next year the project was put on hold due to a city budget crisis.

Congress finally passed a bill to proceed with Kahn’s plans in 1981 and basic site clearing and compaction commenced in 1994.

Kahn gleaned inspiration from the ruins of ancient Greece, Italy and Egypt; monumental, monolithic, bold and obvious. He knew great monuments take time; explaining in 1973 : “I had this thought that a memorial should be a Room and a Garden… the garden a gathering of nature. And the room was the beginning of architecture… an extension of self.”

I walk around Roosevelt’s bronze bust. On the back wall, the President’s fateful words include his base demands: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The text is bold V-cut letters, the words made even more dramatic – if that’s possible – by the contractors having cut the text by hand, and the fact that if Kahn’s project had gone ahead as planned in the 70s, the work would have been undertaken by the actual stonemason’s father.

Now we’re inside Kahn’s ‘room’, my back to Roosevelt’s words, the rectangular space defined by block walls to the east and west, but open to the sky. Steps lead down to a ha-ha with a low wall to the south; no railing to restrict the view. At the top of the steps we’re on the southern tip of the island, the United Nations Headquarters sits to the west, over on the Midtown shore. A tug pushes a barge, skirting Manhattan docks and heading downtown. I wait for the sound of the wash against the wall where it drops into the darker grey of the East River.

Four Freedoms Park and Queensboro Bridge - Roosevelt Island, New York

Four Freedoms Park and Queensboro Bridge – Roosevelt Island, New York

Ambling back on the east side of the island we gaze across at Long Island City. By now it’s late afternoon. We take the aerial tramway from Roosevelt Island in the shadow of Queensboro bridge, across East River to Uptown Manhattan.

The tramcar finally approaches the docking station, both of us pondering the fate of Louis Kahn. He was never to see his Four Freedoms Park even begun, having died back in 1974; collapsing of a heart attack in the restroom of a New York train station, his body unidentified for three days due to a crossed-out address on his passport.


  1. JerseyLil says:

    Ian, you have a knack for descriptions that make the reader feel like he/she is right there. Although I grew up in neighboring New Jersey and have been to Manhattan, I’ve never been to Roosevelt Island. Now I’d like to see it. I have tremendous respect for FDR, I believe he was one of the greatest American presidents, and I‘ve been to the FDR memorial in Wash DC. East Village brings back memories of going to coffee shops and poetry readings there in my 20s. How cool that you once had a studio apt there! I almost moved to the Village when I was 27, but chose California instead. I think Cam’s story went perfectly with the cognac you shared with your girlfriend. Excellent that Cam had the newspaper clipping from 1940. It’s so enjoyable when you meet people so familiar with history and who are excited to share their knowledge. I wasn’t aware of what happened to Louis Kahn, how tragic. Thank you for taking us on this tour of Roosevelt Island with you, great post!

    • IanC says:

      We certainly do have a lot in common JL. I do love NYC & enjoy staying in Greenwich or Eastside. I find in my travels that things often just seem to come together. & I did get a very strong sense of the moment re: FDR. I do find it odd that the US still hadn’t entered the war almost 12-months later, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour.

      btw. One of my great highlights this time in NYC was attending the annual New Years Day Poetry Reading in St.Marks. See post `The Beat Goes On’ if interested.

      So glad you liked the piece.
      Cheers, ic

      • JerseyLil says:

        Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if we had passed each other on the street in the Village all those years ago? LOL! Stranger things have happened. Yes, I know the Poetry Project, went to a few readings at St. Mark’s many years ago. I used to write poetry, still do but very infrequently, free verse. I’ll check out your “The Beat Goes On” post, thanks.

  2. Helena Fortissima says:

    Marvelous detail, Ian. I’ll have to visit the park next time I’m in NYC.

    • IanC says:

      Yes Kris, certainly worth a visit. You really can see the influence of the great ancient cultures on the architect.
      Very happy you liked it.
      Cheers, ic

  3. nothingprofound says:

    Another excellent post, Ian. Finely detailed descriptions. I grew up in NYC, but left long before Kahn’s project was finally realized. So I appreciate you giving me this walking tour by word.

    • IanC says:

      Thanks NP. From NYC? That must have been interesting. It’s changed a lot from what I hear. You know, I would have missed this entirely if not for the guy we rented from; just hadn’t seen a thing about it! Quite amazing really.

      I was certainly struck by the fact the Kahn died before it even got off the ground. I do find architectural pieces the most difficult to write, having to quote so many facts & figures! So I am very glad you could find your way around.
      Cheers, ic

  4. umashankar says:

    Ian, I am again struck by the detailed visual imagery of your writing. That was an excellent journey to Four Freedoms Park, its past and present. Talking of war, I’m invariably reminded oh Ernest Hemingway. He has written extensively on wars and the resultant desolation. I couldn’t resist putting in the following quote by him.

    “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”

    • IanC says:

      Thanks US,
      Very kind.
      Yes, I guess I was quite taken by that particular turn in history; the significance of the words, & the `weight’ of the monument. I guess that `weight’ is also reflected in the impact of war.
      Cheers, ic

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