Franklin D. Roosevelt sits in a wheelchair, reaching his hand out to a girl, herself standing with the aid of a crutch and leg braces.
The moment, however imagined, will be made permanent as a bronze sculpture, landing in the Southpoint Park on Roosevelt Island, to encourage and inspire.
It has taken years to make the installation possible. Titled the FDR Hope Memorial, it was several times delayed since its commission in 2009 because of a lack of money. A recent donation of $150,000, though, finally secured the last of the needed funding. The donor remains anonymous.
Sculptor Meredith Bergmann, who created the Boston Women’s Memorial as well as dozens of other sculpted memorials and portraits, was selected in December 2010 to create the FDR sculpture. She called the grant a “tremendous boost” for the project.
“The work is in stages,” Bergmann said. “The first stage is to design.” An 8-inch-tall model of the statue was unveiled to the public in April 2011. The project then moved into its second phase — sculpting the actual figure and rehearsing the mockup sculpture on site.
Next for Bergmann is to enlarge the sculpture and then to have it installed in the park.
“After the commission, I spent couple of months doing the research,” she said. She read extensively and watched several documentaries about Roosevelt, who contracted polio in middle age and was left paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Bergmann even went to Warm Springs, Georgia, which is home to FDR’s “Little White House.”
The Roosevelt Island Disabled Association, which commissioned the project, showed Bergmann a photo of Roosevelt, giving her an idea of what they envisioned. The picture was a rarity — it was one of the very few existing images in which FDR is shown in his wheelchair. This photo was taken at Hyde Park in 1941. FDR’s dog, Fala, is on his lap and he is smiling to his granddaughter, Ruthie Bie, who is standing next to him. Bergmann took the photo as inspiration, and improvised.
“I wanted to translate the information on the photo into the language of sculpture,” she said. Unlike what is pictured, Bergmann’s Roosevelt is turning his body toward the girl, who is now shown using a single crutch. With FDR’s right hand extended toward her, visitors “are able to shake hands and take photos with him,” Bergmann said.
Depicting FDR, who was elected to a record four terms as president, in his wheelchair is meant — however paradoxically — to cast away barriers. “Physical disability was oftentimes associated with mental decline at that time,” said Bergmann. “He didn’t hide it, it was the press” that didn’t publish photos of him in his wheelchair, she said.
Bergmann, whose son is autistic, calls FDR her personal hero. “FDR is a huge inspiration for people living with different kinds of disabilities,” she said.
Earlier this month, Assemblywoman Rebecca Seawright presented the $150,000 check to the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association.
“I am thrilled that we were able to work with a remarkably generous constituent to finish this extraordinary memorial,” Seawright said in a statement. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s legacy has developed into something beyond what people alive at that time generally knew — that he was not just a remarkable President, but also an individual who prevailed despite his disability.”
The statue’s installation is scheduled for about a year from now.