Thursday, April 20, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: We Have Nothing to Fear But Bad Memorials

Franklin D. Roosevelt was our longest serving president. The only man elected to four terms, he led our nation through two of its greatest crises, the Great Depression and World War II. He did all this despite having been crippled by polio. A blueblood taken into the hearts of the common man, Roosevelt is certainly a figure who deserves to be memorialized by the nation.

We have chosen to do so with the most rambling, nonsensical monument ever devised by the mind of man.

The marvel of our nation's monuments to men like Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington is that they accomplish so much with so little. Consider the stunning simplicity of the Washington Monument. Here's a person known as the Father of our Country. Leader of the victorious Colonial Army. Shaper of the Constitution. Creator of the Presidency. Namesake of city, state, and countless town squares. Most beloved figure in our nation's history. How do you memorialize all that?

The geniuses who came up with "an enormous unadorned obelisk" are owed a great debt. (In fact, the original design called for a grandiose base with a huge statue of Washington on horseback. That was too expensive. So we also owe a debt to debt.) The Washington Monument is a marvel, and the sheer scope of the building tells you something about the man it's named for: he was really important. It can't get all the details in, so it doesn't try.

The Roosevelt Memorial, on the other hand, is obsessed with the details. At every step of the way, we're being reminded of something he did or something he said or someone he affected, the result being that we can never get a single picture of the man. He's been dissected for our examination.

The very layout of the memorial illustrates the problem. Granite walls and waterfalls -- so many waterfalls -- are arranged to form "rooms" corresponding to each of Roosevelt's four terms. So right from the start, we've decided to break up his life into sections. There is no one consistent theme. If we're lucky, there will be four.

But even that's not so simple. You see, early on in the planning stages, plans for the monument got out, and it became clear that the designers were not focusing heavily on the fact that Roosevelt was paralyzed, crippled by polio. FDR took great pains to conceal his condition from the public, and the creators of his memorial probably thought they were being really clever when it came to a statue of the president, where they snuck in a wheel on the leg of a chair in which Roosevelt sits. That way, they acknowledged his ailment, but also stayed true to the character and desires of the man. Well, activists for the disabled raised holy hell, claiming that there was an effort to whitewash the truth, to hide the handicapped. And the designers capitulated instantly.

So now the memorial begins with a "Prologue". It's a single life-size sculpture of Roosevelt in a wheelchair. A wheelchair, we are told, "similar to one he actually designed and used himself." He's all alone in this plaza, with nothing but a quote from his wife, Eleanor, about how he overcame his handicap. (The quote is adorned with comically large Braille translations under each letter.) It's the most minimizing "tribute" I've ever seen. I'm not saying they shouldn't portray the president's life accurately and completely. But there's no context for this. It has nothing to do with any of the many random stories they plan to tell later on. And more importantly, IT'S BESIDE THE POINT. The Washington Monument doesn't spend time on false teeth. The Jefferson Memorial doesn't have a section about fathering children with slaves. If you plan to write a biography, all this stuff matters. Otherwise, stick to the point. The point here ought to be: Roosevelt was a great man. He saved our nation at its lowest ebb. And this doesn't help us make that point. As it is now, it's the central attraction at Handicappedland in Rooseveltworld, which doesn't help anyone; not the disabled, not Roosevelt, and certainly not the visitor trying to sort all this crap out.

Leaving Handicappedland behind, we enter our first room, Inauguration Square. There's a bronze Presidential seal on one wall, a bas-relief (very hard to make out) of a Roosevelt parade on another. And quotes. The first of so many quotes. Roosevelt was always saying something, evidently. And we're off and running.

Rounding the corner, we hit a whole slew of sculpture. Here's a bare-footed man listening to a radio. (The brochure says he's listening to a fireside chat, but there's no way to know that. And anyway, why does he have no socks? He's clearly supposed to be an unwashed hick.) There's a couple, just sitting...um, there. (Again, the brochure tells me it's a rural couple. I guess that's because they have a Dutch door.) And right next to them is a group of men standing in a breadline. The breadline is clearly the favorite of tourists, because they get in line for pictures. "Hey, look at me! I'm unemployed and hungry!" Hilarious.

On the other side of the breadline is more discontinuity, as we come upon four round columns with handprints and Braille writing on them. No explanation whatsoever. Is this the original tribute to the disabled? What the hell is it? It's weird. I stood around for several minutes, vainly searching for the explanation. Finally I gave up, and turned around to the waterfall dedicated to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which I know had nothing to do with those handprints.

Water is absolutely all over the place at the Roosevelt Memorial. I racked my brain trying to think why, and the best I could come up with was his many retreats to the recuperative waters at Warm Springs, Georgia. Then again, it was while swimming that he contracted polio in the first place, so this could be kind of a mixed bag for the President. (Imagine a Reagan memorial that had a continuous loop of Bedtime for Bonzo.) Really, though, it's just because water makes for a neat effect. I'm reading more quotes (it's a David Foster Wallace book, this memorial), but I'm really just thinking about the physical plant that must be running all this water. And even better, the Park Service has had to put up signs asking people not to throw coins into the various water elements. Naturally, there are coins everywhere.

Room Three manages to kick to weirdness up yet another notch. This is the War section of the memorial, and right off the bat we get a great big quote from Roosevelt: "I HATE WAR." The layout of the quote is interesting: it's been arranged so that the quote...frames another quote. ENOUGH WITH THE QUOTING!

And my wish is granted, because in the center of this plaza are piles of granite blocks. I think I get it -- the destructiveness of war -- until I look and see that the words "I HATE" are inscribed on some of the blocks. And my brain clouds over once again. I'm guessing it relates to the quote, but it looks like Roosevelt's words have been reduced to rubble. So what does that mean? That he hates war, but went anyway? That his words won't hold up? That we had some extra granite? What? WHAT?!?

Fortunately, we are saved once again by sculpture. It's Roosevelt again, but a lot bigger now. You could stand alongside him in the Prologue, but here, even seated, he's towering. You'll only come up to his lap. So that's heroic. Except that the image they've chosen to replicate is that of Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference, where he, Churchill, and Stalin divvied up Europe. At that point in history, Roosevelt is sick, only a few months from death, and is clutching a blanket wrapped around him for warmth. So to portray our heroic, triumphant, world-saving president, we've chosen the image that makes him look the weakest. This is truly the most sadistic memorial ever built.

Just to ensure that your brain never gets solid footing, next to this oversized sick Roosevelt is an equally-scaled representation of his dog, Fala. I'll say that again. There's a bronze statue of his Scottish terrier, cast chest-high to a human. Why? Because he had a dog, I guess, and absolutely everything is going into this memorial bouillabaisse. Sigh.

We're on to the last term, which only lasted three months, so it's time to bring this sucker home now. There's another bas-relief, this time mourners at Roosevelt's funeral. (It looks like the advertising from the musical Ragtime.) And more quotes, including his famous "Four Freedoms", which are not identified as such. And hey, look! It's a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt! Says here she was the first U.S. delegate to the United Nations. That's neat. I'm guessing from the name that she's related to FDR somehow. Maybe he appointed her. It's hard to say, based on the complete and utter lack of context, or any reason whatsoever for Eleanor Roosevelt to get her own statue in the FRICKIN' FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT MEMORIAL! For crying out loud. The wife, the dog, the wheelchair...where the hell is the cigarette holder? We get everything else, but not that? Where's his attempt to pack the Supreme Court? Where's his mistress? How about the time where he led the entire cabinet in singing "Tomorrow"? Let's get it all!

The memorial seems to go on a little further. More granite, more water. So I follow along, and I end up...at restrooms. Yes, the loo has been incorporated seamlessly into the monument, so that you can't actually tell that the memorial has ended. Magnificent. A perfect finish to an utterly ridiculous monument. I'm a little surprised how infuriating I find the whole thing. But it's the perfect example of art-by-committee, and shows how you can throw hundreds of millions of dollars into a blender and come out with puréed crap. It doesn't glorify Roosevelt. It doesn't explain Roosevelt. At best, it belittles him. All told, it's just a little bit of everything, which adds up to a whole lot of nothing.

Franklin Roosevelt himself said he wanted no memorial. If you must, he said, then make it a block of marble the size of my desk with my name on it. And just such a monument was built; it's in front of the National Archives. You should go visit that. It's easier to get to, shorter, and has no water or quotes whatsoever.

Most importantly, it makes sense.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Holy crap, did I enjoy your "review" of the Roosevelt memorial.
Thanks again, Dr.

Jason

Brandi. said...

I love your rants/reviews/visions.

I plan to visit the desk but not the memorial the next time I'm in DC.

Pad said...

I eagerly await your published collection of public memorial reviews.

Fantastic!

Paul Winston said...

Are you sure you don't work for the D.C. Tourist Bureau?

Seriously, I hear a calling.