That’s certainly what happened with Kahn’s design for a New York City memorial for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, now known as Four Freedoms Park. First sketched out in 1973 for a site at the tip of the newly christened Roosevelt Island—a piece of land in the East River formerly known as Welfare Island—the memorial languished after Kahn died of a heart attack inside a men’s room at New York’s Pennsylvania Station in 1974. The city’s financial crisis wouldn’t culminate with the famous New York Post headline—“Ford to City: Drop Dead”—for another year, but morale and the economy were already bad enough at the time of Kahn’s death that the Roosevelt memorial, an expensive, expansive, and optimistic project, became a very tough sell. It slid into limbo even as development of the rest of Roosevelt Island moved forward.
In 2005, the memorial was rescued by a pair of unlikely saviors: an architect named Gina Pollara and a retired diplomat and longtime Roosevelt admirer named William vanden Heuvel. Pollara organized an exhibition on Kahn’s design for the memorial in 2005 at the Cooper Union. Around the same time vanden Heuvel—who had also been inspired by Nathaniel Kahn’s 2003 documentary on his famous father, “My Architect”—began raising money to build it. Even more important, he also began exploring ways to smooth its political path to completion. He eventually collected more than $53 million, started a foundation to oversee its operation, and hired an architect (Mitchell/Giurgola) and a landscape architect (Villa/Sherr, working from original designs by Kahn’s collaborator Harriet Pattison) to work with Pollara.
The finished memorial, which I visited a few days after it opened last October, is the opposite of compromised. Perhaps because it was built so long after Kahn’s death, or because its completion seemed so unlikely for so long, everyone involved seems to have taken great care to get the details exactly right. (It also helped that Kahn had finished a complete set of working drawings for the memorial before he died.)
A white-granite staircase 100 feet wide brings you up onto a wide grass plain flanked by rows of linden trees. The whole triangle-shaped memorial then narrows as it moves south toward the tip of the island. At the point of the triangle, right where it noses into the river, is an open-air room marked by heavy granite walls on three sides and a larger-than-life bust, by the sculptor Jo Davidson, of Roosevelt. Inscribed in the granite are words from the 1941 State of the Union address—better known as the “Four Freedoms” speech—that gives the memorial its name.
The design’s brawn and its careful, chiseled proportions make an indelible combination. And the view it offers of Midtown Manhattan across the river is among the best architectural vistas in the country.
The final product is aided, of course, by the fact that Kahn’s particular approach to architecture was impervious to trends and architectural fashion. Since his work stood (and stands) so easily out of time, the newly built memorial doesn’t seem particularly anachronistic, which is remarkable given that it was designed four decades ago. (Can you imagine a novel from 1974 being published for the first time today and not seeming horribly dated? The best-sellers on the fiction list that year included books by Graham Greene, Agatha Christie, and James Baldwin.)
But the really astonishing part of this story is not that Kahn’s work has withstood this peculiar kind of time travel; he seems better suited for it than nearly any other 20th-century architect I can think of. What’s amazing is that this memorial design found in Pollara and vanden Heuvel a pair of terrifically effective patrons decades after Kahn produced it—patrons who unwrapped the dusty blueprints and saw not a relic or a missed opportunity, but a piece of architecture waiting to be built.