Transcript of Audio Tour “Welcome to FDR Four Freedoms State Park: A Journey Through Hope and Human Rights”

1: Welcome to FDR Four Freedoms State Park

Leslie Wright: Welcome to FDR Four Freedoms State Park. My name is Leslie Wright. I’m the New York City Regional Director for State Parks, and we’re so happy to have you here. 

2024 is the 100th anniversary of the New York State Parks Department and our glorious system of over 200 state parks. FDR Four Freedoms, as you’ll see for yourself Is a spectacular, singular example of what our state parks have to offer in New York City and across the state. 

Michael: We’re about to explore a presidential Memorial and a monument to universal freedom. Before we do so, I’m sure you’re eager to know more about that stone ruin to the left of the entrance. Walk over to the tall black fence to get a closer look. 

It’s a smallpox hospital dating from 1856. 

Gina Pollara: It was designed by the architect James Renwick Jr., who also designed Grace Church on Fourth Avenue and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. 

Michael: That’s the voice of Gina Pollara, the architect responsible for building the FDR Four Freedoms State Park. 

The Renwick Ruin used to be the southernmost point on the island. Everything south of it, for instance, where you stand now was all created from landfill. 

Gina Pollara: The fill started in the 1950s with demolition from the island. Most of the fill came in the early 1970s from excavated material from the subway tunnel and when they blasted for the city tunnel number three, which is part of our water supply system.

Michael: Walk up ahead to where the black asphalt below your feet becomes white granite and head over to the wall on the right. You’ll be looking out west across the East River towards Manhattan. 

Can you see the United Nations headquarters a bit to the south?

Roosevelt’s aspirations for global cooperation led to the formation of the UN. Just six months after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, the United Nations was officially established, although their headquarters wasn’t completed until 1952.

Gina Pollara: Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the first Human Rights Commission and they wrote what is called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a foundational document of the United Nations. 

Michael: Adopted on December 10th, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes a broad framework of rights central to international human rights law. 

Gina Pollara: So what it is essentially is it’s an expanded version of The Four Freedoms.

Michael: Before we leave here. I want to introduce the visionary architect who designed this inspiring place. 

2: Intro to the Park

Michael: Louis Kahn transforms spaces into places of profound resonance, blending grandeur and intimacy. The kind of places you don’t just see, but feel. 

The University of Pennsylvania professor was first commissioned to build the FDR Four Freedoms State Park in 1973. Just three months after his designs were approved, he suddenly passed away, leaving his work unfinished. It wasn’t until 2006, when Ambassador Bill vanden Heuvel revived the project, that a team was assembled to finally build this park.

Gina Pollara: Kahn had a facility to understand three dimensionally what he was doing. Actually four dimensions. Because if you add the element of time, you understand something else about his architecture.

He was never a household name like Frank Lloyd Wright. And he did not produce a lot of work, built work. But, almost every single project is a masterpiece

Michael: look down over the edge of the wall

Gina Pollara: so rip rap is what you call a jumble of rocks that’s placed at the edge of an island that minimizes the erosive effect of the water slapping against the edge. The angular quality of the rocks breaks up the energy of the water. 

Michael: Do you notice the difference between the rip rap belonging to Kahn’s park and the rip rap to the right? 

Gina Pollara: Normally what you do is back up your dump truck and you dump it.

But this is a special rip wrap.

Michael: So, how do you get rip rap to look like it was not dumped out of the back of a truck?

Gina Pollara: Two guys and a guy in a bucket truck hand-set this entire thing all the way around 

Michael: The effect of the rip rap is even more dramatic when seen from a distance. 

Gina Pollara: It sort of vacillates between being architecture and being a big piece of land art.

Michael: turn away from the water and then walk over to, and then climb up the grand staircase.

While you walk, let’s talk history so we can better understand the name of the park and the speech that it serves to honor

Let’s go back to March 4th, 1933.

The United States is gripped by the worst economic crisis in its history. After the highs of the roaring twenties. The economy crashed spectacularly, leaving millions, jobless, and destitute. Franklin D Roosevelt, the newly elected president of the United States. Delivers his inauguration speech.

FDR: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. 

Michael: Over the next eight years. Roosevelt’s new deal policies. Focus on propping up the average American. Some conservatives, including many in the business community criticize the New Deal as socialist and overly bureaucratic, and an encroachment on private industry and individual liberties.

Gina Pollara: They thought he was a traitor to his class but you know, the fact that he had polio when he was 39 years old and he could never walk unassisted for the rest of his life. And I think that really changed his perspective.

Michael: For many Americans, his New Deal ushers in a wave of programs and reforms aimed at providing relief and recovery to a devastated nation by creating jobs. His policies even supported artists by funding over 200, 000 public projects, like murals in schools and public buildings, leading to a period of intense creativity in the arts sector.

That’s why even though the nation had fallen on hard times, we still see important artistic works being produced. Novels like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, records like Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train, and films like The Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane all came out during the next decade. But while FDR was fixing domestic issues, international problems were beginning to take a higher priority.

Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933 cast a dark shadow over Europe.

Michael: By January 1941, he’d already annexed Austria, Czechoslovakia, and overrun Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France. 

Europe was being reshaped, and the horrors of the Holocaust were unfolding. 

The United States, though yet untouched by war, re-elects President FDR for an unprecedented third term to lead the country through this great international crisis.

It’s at this moment in January 1941 that FDR delivers his famous For Freedom speech, for which this park is named. 

We’ll talk more about that later.

3: The Garden

Michael: You should be looking across the grass at the FDR bust in the distance, with a staircase descending behind you.

Because Kahn died so suddenly, there isn’t much in the public record about his design.

Gina Pollara: The only thing that I’ve ever been able to find that Kahn said specifically about the design is from a lecture that he gave at Pratt Institute in 1973. And he said, I had this idea that the memorial should be a room and a garden. Why a room and a garden? Because the garden is sort of a gathering of nature, a personal control of nature. And the room is the beginning of architecture.

Michael: So where does the garden end and where does the room begin? 

Gina Pollara: Once you ascend the monumental stair, you are in the realm of the garden. And then When you get down to the head, the idea is that Roosevelt welcomes you into what Kahn called the room.

Michael: The bust of FDR probably feels like it’s drawing you in right now. 

Gina Pollara: This is a one point perspective in the landscape using the allee of trees. that you can walk underneath to draw this one point perspective in the landscape with the head of President Roosevelt as the focal point.

Michael: Take a picture here of the great lawn with Roosevelt’s head at the center. When we get to the other side of the great lawn, we’re going to bring that picture back up to show off an interesting optical illusion.

Walk down the left allee under the trees and towards FDRs bust. You can see Queens to the left as you walk, which is east.

Gina Pollara: This was one of the things that was not certain because the archival materials lists a number of different trees. 

Michael: Kahn’s sudden death meant the documentation for what he wanted was, in places, not complete. 

Gina Pollara: We assumed that we had a set of full set of construction documents, because that’s the set of drawings they would’ve used to build the project in 1975. But some of the really important elements aren’t on the drawings.

So we had to do a lot of investigation with the archival materials at the University of Pennsylvania, to figure out what, what some of these elements were supposed to be. 

Michael: In this case, there was a good case to be made to use the Linden tree. 

Gina Pollara: They are a classic tree that they would use in Europe to make an allee.

Michael: Once he reached the bottom of the LA turned to the right and center yourself on the great lawn to look back at where you were just standing. The one point perspective as seen backwards. Makes the lawn look like a rectangle from this side.

Gina Pollara: And if you look at it through your phone, it really is a rectangle. but also remember how deep the garden was when you were at the top of the stairs? 

He’s using really simple gestures, right? The tilted plane, the one point perspective, like really simple things but it’s so powerful.

One of the hallmarks of Kahn’s architecture is this constant shifting in dimension and scale. So now, we feel bigger than we felt when we were standing at the top of the garden. And that sense of your own scale and the scale of the space itself changes as you walk around. 

Michael: Head passed the bust of FDR sculpted by artists, Jo Davidson in 1933 to enter the room. On the back of the bus is an excerpt of the famous four freedom speech. In the next section, we’ll listen to some of the speech.

4: The Room

FDR: In the future days that we seek to make secure we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way. Everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which translated into world terms means economic understanding, which will secure to every nation, a healthy peace time life for its inhabitants everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which translated into world terms means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor anywhere in the world

that is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. All our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. 

Michael: This speech not only begun to pivot public sentiment, but also sowed the seeds for international collaboration in the post-war period. 

Gina Pollara: We call this the East River, but it’s not a river. It’s a tidal strait, which means it’s a narrow body of water that connects two larger bodies of water, in this case, the New York Harbor and the Long Island Sound. 

Michael: Get up close to the granite blocks that form the walls of the room to see another optical illusion. 

Gina Pollara: These are six foot by six foot by 12 foot high solid granite blocks. 

Michael: Run your hand over the surface of the granite blocks to feel the texture. 

Gina Pollara: Kahn specified that the finish of the columns should be a wire sawn finish. So it means that whatever comes off the saw is what it is. 

He felt that materials should exhibit the marks of their making.

Because the wire advances through the edges of the block faster than the center. That’s why you end up getting this kind of pattern.

Michael: The rough face of the stone you’re looking at is wire sawn. But counter-intuitively the narrow space between the stones looks polished and smooth. 

Gina Pollara: Because of the polished finish, when you look at the top of the block, it looks like a thin piece of paper. You totally do not see that that is a solid granite block. There’s no depth. 

Roosevelt said that he felt that all problems could be solved, by people sitting around like a dining room table and that’s what the form of the general assembly is. It’s a circular area that everybody comes together. And so I see these columns as representing sort of their individual country, but that come together to form a larger, space. 

Michael: Head over to the Southern most point of the room, by the glass barrier, to look out and enjoy the view of Manhattan skyline to the right. Straight ahead is Brooklyn. And to the left is Queens. 

As you can imagine getting a monument like this built in a city like New York took a lot of effort from a lot of people. President FDR’s son was amongst the people that worked over the decades to find the money and political support to bring it all together.

Tobie: Never happened in his lifetime, unfortunately. 

Michael: Tobie Roosevelt, kept working after her husband passed away. 

Tobie: The original funding came from a friend of mine, the Leon Levy Shelby White Trust. That was the first big money into the park. People with great wealth have their own causes. You know, some people only want to fund medical research or a hospital wing, so, Ambassador vanden Heuvel had to go really lay out a picture of how important the Four Freedoms were to the whole world and to our civilization.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable, in our own time and generation, 

Michael: If you’ve been inspired by the beauty and significance of FDR Four Freedoms State Park, we invite you to support our ongoing efforts to preserve and enhance this remarkable space. Please consider making a donation today to help us continue sharing its history. and legacy with future visitors.

This audio tour was brought to you by the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy, the Friends Group of FDR Four Freedoms State Park, with funding from Parks and Trails New York and New York’s Environmental Protection Fund.