FDR, A Memorial for All of Us
Scansite creates 3D digital files of the new FDR sculpture and bas relief panels for the Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Memorial for All of Us'; Statue of FDR In Wheelchair Added to Tribute
The Washington Post – Washington, D.C.
Author: David Montgomery
Jan 11, 2001
A bronze likeness of a resolute and unashamed Franklin Delano Roosevelt sitting in his wheelchair was unveiled with presidential pomp beside the Tidal Basin yesterday, a powerful and controversial touch added to the 31/2-year-old FDR Memorial.
The refrain on many lips during the ceremony — “He did it all from his wheelchair” — was both a rallying cry for disability rights and a tribute to the president, whose privacy about his condition initially caused planners to omit a depiction of him in the contraption he designed and built with a kitchen chair and bicycle wheels.
After the speeches — after President Clinton called it “a statue of freedom” and a granddaughter of FDR said it was “a memorial for all of us” — the first admirers were those who wheeled their own chairs alongside to pose for pictures. Others, guided by black Labradors, used deft fingers to searchingly caress the bronze lines and curves.
During these first encounters, the sculpture seemed instantly capable of taking its place among the most moving landmarks of monumental Washington.
Meryl Shecter, 49, who works for the Social Security Administration with a computer that talks, stroked Roosevelt’s face, then felt for the chair. She wanted to “see” it, she said, make sure it was really there. Blind since birth, she has never seen a wheelchair, but she said that what she felt matched the picture in her mind’s eye.
“It’s a wonderful portrayal,” she declared of the chair. Then, speaking of the man, she added, “I took courage from him, because I believe that since he was able to do what he did, the sky’s the limit for me.”
The life-size sculpture, with a chin-uplifted Roosevelt looking toward the Washington Monument, seems small and defenseless in a large, bare plaza in front of the huge granite blocks of the FDR Memorial.
The effect is intentional, according to the designers and the disability rights advocates who fought for the statue. The bronze Roosevelt is meant to be approachable, human, making the point that the famously indomitable spirit resided in a vulnerable body.
Architect Lawrence Halprin said he now believes the sculpture, created by Robert Graham, improves the aesthetics of the open-air memorial, with the entrance enhanced by this forecourt, which leads to the four outdoor “rooms” depicting Roosevelt’s four terms.
But Halprin maintained that his original design was more historically accurate, following Roosevelt’s preference for keeping his disability from the public eye. Of the 10,000 photographs in the presidential archives, four show FDR in his wheelchair. He was stricken with polio in 1921 at age 39 and never took another unassisted step.
The opposition to showing FDR in a wheelchair was shared by many, including the commission that sponsored the memorial. But it gradually yielded to the arguments and political muscle of disability rights advocates, who favored showing that the man who led the nation through the Depression and a world war did it from his wheelchair. Leading the fight was the National Organization on Disability, which raised $1.65 million for the statue.
The FDR statue, said the organization’s president, Alan Reich, 71, who began using a wheelchair after a diving accident nearly 40 years ago, is a symbolic leap for the disability rights movement.
The audience at the ceremony numbered a few hundred people, including many disabled adults and children and their families, along with Cabinet members, members of Congress and celebrities such as actress Anjelica Huston, wife of the sculptor.
“One thing I like about the disability movement today,” said Clinton, whose speech was interrupted several times by cheers from a crowd who consider him one of their champions, “is that it has moved beyond getting the rest of us to do the right thing out of compassion . . . do the right thing because it’s the right thing.”
Speaking as one savvy politician assessing another, Clinton explained FDR’s reluctance to display his disability this way: “He was a canny fellow, and he didn’t want to risk any vote loss from letting people see him in a wheelchair.”
The people with disabilities in attendance said they did not fault Roosevelt for living by the standards of another time, when disability was a sign of weakness.
“I think FDR was afraid of showing his disability,” said Kyle Glozier, 15, of New Freeport, Pa., communicating via a keyboard on his lap and with his mother, Laura, interpreting his struggling speech. He said he hopes to become the first president with cerebral palsy, and added: “I think showing him sitting in his wheelchair is a good sign of people accepting people with disabilities.”
Bone disease has meant that Michael A. Winter, 45, a federal transportation administrator, must use a wheelchair, and he spent one entire year, when he was 9, in a hospital.
“My role model was FDR,” he said. “I thought of him constantly. My mother told me that FDR was a great person, he led the country, and he was in a wheelchair. ‘You can do anything.’ ”
Many considered the question: If Roosevelt were alive today, could he be elected president? Would he be angry to see himself depicted in a wheelchair?
“He would be proud of this memorial,” said Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, a granddaughter of FDR. Besides, she added, “memorials are for us. They aren’t necessarily for the people they memorialize.”
Evidence that politicians in wheelchairs are achieving high office was embodied in Sen. Max Cleland (DGa.) and Rep. James Langevin (D- R.I.), who wheeled their chairs up to the statue.
Paul W. Schroeder, 38, a vice president of the American Foundation for the Blind who as a toddler lost his sight to cancer, said FDR, if alive today, would be a strong advocate for disabled people.
Many of the first visitors to Washington’s newest statue had disabilities, but Reich, of the National Organization on Disability, predicted that the statue will have broader appeal. It is, he said, an argument in bronze that people can overcome circumstances and become great.
“It’s much larger than disability,” Reich said. “It is indeed universal.”
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