In 1970, the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute (then known as the Four Freedoms Foundation) initiated the planning of a memorial to FDR in New York. The Four Freedoms Foundation entered into discussions with city and state leaders, including Edward J. Logue, President of the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), which was planning a new, self-contained community on what was then called Welfare Island. As a result of those discussions, the site on the southern tip of Welfare Island was selected for the memorial and because the island was to contain this memorial, the island was renamed in honor of FDR on September 24, 1973. Naming the Island for Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first step in a project that was to culminate in the construction of the memorial on the southern tip.

The announcement of these plans was first made on April 12, 1972 at the Annual Award Dinner of the Four Freedoms Foundation, at which then-president of the Foundation Joseph Robinson said:

I wish to announce that after consultations with Governor [Nelson A.] Rockefeller, Mayor [John V.] Lindsay, Edward J. Logue, President of the New York State Urban Development Corporation, and August Heckscher, New York City Administrator of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, and other state and city officials, an understanding has been reached whereby approximately two acres of land on the southern tip of Welfare Island will be made available to the Four Freedoms Foundation, for the construction of an appropriate memorial to the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt [...] The memorial, when completed, will be turned over to the New York City Park System or the National Park Service or other appropriate governmental agency for maintenance and care and the public's use.

In July 1973, two months prior to the dedication ceremony, the New York Times ran an editorial announcing the memorial and the name change:

Even more than the name itself, the island is to have an appropriate tribute to FDR in the form of a memorial to be constructed at its southernmost point. Of all the spots in the country, this is surely the most suitable for the purpose. Standing there, the traveler coming to pay FDR's respects will look squarely at the capitol of the United Nations which [FDR's] vision encompassed, see in the river and the harbor beyond it the ships that so filled his life, and finally extend his gaze to the Atlantic Ocean which President Roosevelt saw as the bond and unifier of the Western World.

View of Roosevelt Memorial model, looking south. Basswood and canvas on unpainted wood base, 1974. George Pohl, photographer. George Pohl Collection, University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives.
I recall how at the dedication ceremony on September 24, 1973, Mayor Lindsay announced the plans for the memorial, publicly pledging the city's commitment to the memorial and using the rechristening of the island as the memorial's launching event. One of our century's greatest architects, Louis Kahn, was commissioned to design the memorial and did so shortly before his death. His design for the memorial has been called «one of the noblest unbuilt projects in New York» by the New York Times. Indeed, the noted architect Robert Gatje has assured me that the architectural community is emphatically united in its determination that the project be built – the wait is far outweighed by the historic and artistic benefits to future generations of a Louis Kahn memorial to FDR.

Fundraising commenced as soon as the project was conceived. In 1974, Governor Malcolm Wilson included $2.2 million for the FDR Memorial in his budget message and the Four Freedoms Foundation asked Mayor Abraham Beame for an equal amount from New York City. The Four Freedoms Foundation planned to raise the remaining funds for the memorial from private sources (the estimated cost of the memorial at the time was $6 million) and had secured pledges totaling $250,000 from foundations. However, the financial crisis in New York City and New York State in the mid-1970s prevented these plans from materializing.

Although the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) General Development Plan of 1990 for Roosevelt Island simply calls for a park at the end of the island, the record clearly shows that the UDC, the original planners of the Roosevelt Island development, intended to build the FDR Memorial on that site. The participation of the city and state governments in the project before the fiscal crisis prevented further action and the commissioning and approval of the Kahn design indicate that all the parties involved made a commitment to building the Kahn-designed memorial on the designated site. In 1985, the Roosevelt Memorial Commission appointed by Governor Mario Cuomo, and co-chaired by leading Republican and longtime Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz, and by former New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner, reviewed the site and plans for the memorial and reaffirmed that commitment. The Commission unanimously recommended that «the Memorial designed for Roosevelt Island in the East River by the late Louis Kahn, one of America's greatest architects, be adopted and moved to completion with all possible speed.»

Because of continuing fiscal difficulties, federal, state, and city funding has not been available in recent years, but in these prosperous times, New York State, New York City, and a partnership of private donors can surely be organized. Some progress has been made toward realizing the ultimate goal of building the memorial. The ruins of the Old City Hospital at the southern end of the island, have been torn down. And in 1994, RIOC filled, shaped and graded the site of the memorial in accordance with Kahn's design. It had also planned to rebuild the sea walls around the memorial site before its capital budget was cut.

View of Roosevelt Memorial model and East River, looking west toward the United Nations and Manhattan. Basswood and canvas on unpainted wood base, 1974. George Pohl, photographer. George Pohl Collection, University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives.
As we know from the Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and FDR memorials in Washington, the selection of a site, the designing of and the raising of funds to build memorials is a difficult and lengthy process. In the case of the Roosevelt Memorial on Roosevelt Island, the architectural community and other interested parties are unanimous in their agreement that the site and the design are outstanding; the only remaining obstacle – one which can certainly be overcome – is the money with which to build it. In the interim, the site could be named Franklin D. Roosevelt Park and, as RIOC has demonstrated in the past, it could be used for special events in keeping with its ultimate purpose.

We are exploring the legal commitment made by the city and state to this project. I have personal knowledge of the moral commitment, made by the city and state in the earliest days of the project and reaffirmed time and again by both, to the creation of a memorial to FDR on the southernmost tip of the island. I trust that RIOC will not disregard history and will honor that longstanding commitment by only entertaining those proposals for development of Southpoint which preserve the acreage at the tip set aside in the General Development Plan for its intended – and symbolically perfect purpose... the long-awaited memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt, a son of New York and the greatest President of the twentieth century.

Delivered at a meeting of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation Southpoint Development Advisory Committee. Published as «A Glimmer of Hope for FDR Park at Southpoint,» in The Wire, March 7, 1998.

Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel was President of the Four Freedoms Foundation from 1984–87 and President of its successor, the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, from 1987 to 2000. He has served as Deputy U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations and as U.S. Representative to the European Office of the United Nations.