By SAM ROBERTS
On March 17, 1974, the architect Louis I. Kahn died of a heart attack as he was walking through Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. He was 73. In his briefcase were the final drawings, which he had just completed, for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial to be built on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island.
A few weeks later, state officials approved Mr. Kahn’s design. They said construction would begin before the end of the year. Even if Mr. Kahn had not died, he almost certainly would never have lived long enough to see any evidence of his design bearing fruit.
Ground was finally broken late last month for the triangular four-and-a-half acre Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park across the East River from the United Nations.
There was no ceremony or announcement. A formal groundbreaking will be this summer to celebrate the start of the final phase of Roosevelt Island’s planned development.
The project was conceived 40 years ago when the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute (then known as the Four Freedoms Foundation) initiated the planning of a memorial in New York.
In 1973, Roosevelt Island was officially renamed (from Welfare Island) and plans for a memorial were disclosed. But the project encountered what William J. vanden Heuvel, who founded the Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y., to preserve the legacy of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and has been instrumental in raising money for the memorial, called “a perfect storm” of obstacles.
New York City became mired in a fiscal crisis, and Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, an advocate for the project, was named vice president and left town.
The memorial is expected to cost about $50 million. Nearly $35 million has been raised so far, including $10 million in government funds and a $10 million gift from the Alphawood Foundation of Chicago.
Visitors to the memorial will enter past a stand of copper beech trees. They will ascend a monumental stair to allees of 150 linden trees flanking a sloped lawn and culminating in a granite-lined open-air plaza called the “room,” which will house a bust of the former president and will be engraved with the Four Freedoms (speech and religion and an absence of want and fear) he proclaimed in a 1941 speech.
People who donate a tree will have their names engraved on a granite parapet with relevant Roosevelt references.
“If we’re lucky in raising these funds, we’ll be finished in a little over two years,” Mr. vanden Heuvel said. “It’s an opportunity for people to have their names attached to what is going to be a world-class monument the moment it’s finished.”
After all the delays, he said it was particularly appropriate that construction had begun as the nation emerges from the biggest financial crisis since the Depression and under a president whose oratory and goals evoke Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The available money will cover the first two phases of the project, including the plaza, installation of the sculpture, the carving of the Four Freedoms text and shoreline improvements.
The third phase, which is expected to take another 11 months and cost about $17 million, includes the tree planting, the lawn and the staircase that constitute the public space.
Just north of the memorial, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation is completing Southpoint Park, 10 acres of “green rooms” and “wild gardens” surrounding an abandoned smallpox hospital. Southpoint, a partnership with the Trust for Public Land, is scheduled to open next fall.
Now that ground has been broken for the memorial, Mr. vanden Heuvel was relatively sanguine about the long wait. He pointed out that the memorial in Washington to Abraham Lincoln, who died in 1865, wasn’t dedicated until 1922.