In my last posts I looked for alternate designs submitted for the now legendary Vietnam Veterans Memorial. My search proved harder than I originally thought it would be, and I was only able to find a photo of one submitted design. For this post, I decided to take a slightly different route and chose something I knew I could find documentation of. Marcel Breuer’s design for a proposed Franklin Roosevelt Memorial isn’t necessarily hard to find (images of it are available on-line) but I classify it as a Cultural Ghost because it’s the kind of thing that’s hard to find unless you’re specifically looking for it.
It was inevitable that a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt would someday be built in Washington D.C. FDR was elected president 4 times and lead America through two of the darkest chapters in history. He enacted social reforms that are still with us today. A memorial to his presidency (and basically two decades of American history) was proposed as early as 1960, but the memorial that stands today as a symbol of Roosevelt’s greatness wasn’t opened to the public until 1997. Over the course of 30 years, there were bound to be some changes, and the finished memorial differed greatly from what was eventually built.
The monument was eventually handed to Lawrence Halprin. As it stands, the FDR Memorial is a series of rooms, each one abstractly representative of Roosevelt’s time in office. Events like World War II and The Great Depression are remembered with statuary and waterfalls. Instead of one statue of a president, the FDR Memorial is considerably more complex. Sculptor George Segal created several of his characteristic figures and vignettes, and other sculptors such as Leonard Baskin and Robert Graham also contributed to the sculptural program. There’s the obligatory bronze statue of FDR himself, of course, but Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR’s beloved terrier Fala are also commemorated. It’s a grand memorial for a larger-than-life figure, but it could have been much different if the original plan for the memorial had been built.
Architect Marcel Breuer seemed to perfectly fit the profile of the designer for an FDR Memorial. He was of Jewish descent and had taught at the Bauhaus, the school that revolutionized the basic approach to teaching art and design. He fled to England when the Nazis forced the closure of the school in 1933. His life was rearranged by World War II, but he had overcome adversity and found success as a practitioner of modern architecture. His design for the FDR Memorial, submitted in 1966, looked like this:
Breuer’s vision of architecture and design is certainly visible here. A large block or cube is surrounded by several slanted slabs (they appear to be marble in one of the photos) that seem to be radiating out from the center. The materials and surfaces speak for themselves. There is no statuary or giant sculpture of the president. Such a modern approach would surely have been controversial had it been built, and the design was criticized while still in the planning phases. Delays in the planning and funding dragged the project out, and it was eventually handed off to a different designer.
Breuer’s design offers an insight into American aesthetics of the mid 20th century. Modern design and architecture was working its way into the mainstream, and the sleek unadorned memorial reflects the changing attitudes towards design and planning that took hold after WWII. But, I don’t mean to suggest that Breuer’s design would have been better then what was actually built in D.C. The monument as it stands is a moving tribute to a great man as well as a peaceful place to contemplate and reflect on some of the most difficult times in our history.
Next time, a new topic. It might be something you've never heard of.