November 1, 2017 | By Gina Pollara, Archive Project Board Member & “Accidental Archivist”
Article from Fall 2017 Newsletter
A mere 32 architectural sheets measuring 36-inches by 48-inches: that is the sum total of construction drawings that exist for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, a masterwork designed by the renowned architect Louis I. Kahn for the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. In 2005, I co-curated an exhibition about this project at my alma mater, The Cooper Union, which led to a renewed (and ultimately successful) effort to build the memorial, now called FDR Four Freedoms Park.
The small team behind this endeavor set itself a mandate at the outset: the project would be built according to the set of construction drawings produced in 1974-75, with whatever changes were required by current codes and regulations. That seemingly straightforward (and, in hindsight, perhaps naïve) dictate obscured what would become, at times, an intensely laborious process, but ensuring that the final built form remained true to Kahn’s vision and ethos was paramount. Since a fully detailed set of construction drawings existed, it initially seemed there was a well-defined road map to completion. But, as we dug in, it became clear that some of the truly essential elements—ones at the very heart of the design—remained unresolved.
In the late 1960s to early 1970s, New York City undertook to redevelop what was then called Welfare Island, and Kahn was retained to design a memorial commemorating President Roosevelt for its south end. When Kahn died unexpectedly in 1974, the design had been completed and approved. The set of construction documents were finished posthumously by the remaining associates in his Philadelphia office working in conjunction with the firm, Mitchell Giurgola, but the city’s fiscal crisis in 1975 stopped the project altogether.
Kahn died deeply in debt, and his assets were to be sold and likely dispersed to satisfy his obligations. A dedicated group of his friends and colleagues understood the importance of keeping the collection together, and they brokered a deal whereby the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would acquire the contents of Kahn’s office and place the materials on permanent loan in an archive at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater and long-time employer. The Louis I. Kahn Collection contains a trove of drawings, models, photographs, correspondence, and project files that make substantive research into Kahn’s design process possible. The existence of these materials is an incredible boon, but having access to them did not diminish the enormous and very real challenges of construction. Nor did they always help make decisions about key design elements easy. But part of the challenge (and the excitement) of building something posthumously is the detective work required, the unremitting search for answers that is demanded—and it is only the existence of archival records that makes this possible.
The drawings themselves gave insight into how to interpret Kahn’s thinking about the project. The plan of the memorial with its triangular lawn bordered by two allées of Littleleaf Linden trees is essentially a one-point perspective drawing in the landscape with a large portrait head of Roosevelt as its focal point. This is a central feature of the design and must be visible from a great distance, and yet the construction drawings are silent as to the size and support of the head itself. In fact, the final drawings do not include this element at all, which is the only representation of FDR in the entire memorial. As it is delineated, the sculpture niche is empty. Piecing together various historic records—in this case, examining a wooden model made in 1973 as well as photographs and sketches on yellow trace paper of earlier iterations of the design—enabled us to establish that the head was meant to be of a colossal scale and modeled after the sculpture made in 1934 by the artist Jo Davidson. A old photograph found online shows Jo Davidson in his studio with a colossal plaster head of FDR, though it could not be determined if Kahn ever saw or was aware of this image. Even with this documentation, the final size and support had to be determined through a series of full-scale mock-ups on site and at the foundry. It would have been impossible to even begin this process without the existence of key records that helped to guide it. There were several other critical elements of the design, such as the inscription that appears on the north wall of the “room,” that required this same meticulous sleuthing, extrapolation, and ingenuity. In the end, however, the final built form is unmistakably a work of Kahn’s, a testament to the invaluable role of historic records and yet another reason to argue for their preservation.
It is ironic that I first learned of Kahn’s design when I became involved in an exhibition of historic materials produced by the Department of Docks, the old agency that oversaw all the city’s piers and pier structures. That show, which also included more recent proposals for the waterfront like the FDR Memorial, and the subsequent publication called The New York Waterfront, is what sparked my part-time occupation as an accidental archivist. Though I had often used historic documents as an architect, I became much more aware of the important obligation we all have to actively steward the conservation of archival records. Happily, there are organizations such as the New York Preservation Archive Project, the core mission of which is to protect and promote the records of the preservation movement in New York City. But the Archive Project also understands it can help lead other organizations in their archival efforts. It has been inspiring and fulfilling to serve on the Archive Project board and especially on the Archival Assistance Fund Committee, which has just awarded its third round of grants to support the archival work of other diligent groups.
Kahn’s papers survive intact because of the tenacity and foresight of his friends. Without them, the memorial could not have been built. It is a lesson worth sharing.