Blossom-less FDR Memorial delights. MLK Memorial just looks sad.



The memorial to FDR has been a local favorite since it opened in 1997, and yesterday it was the first stop on my cherry blossom tour via bicycle.  (You can get your own bike there via subway or rent one when you get downtown.)  But like thousands of other tourists, I was sorry to see no cherries blooming at all, thanks to our super-cool spring and the perennial unreliability of cherry tree blooms.

But guess what.  The lack of blooms focused my eyes and camera on something else – the humans, of which there were plenty, though thankfully not the hoards that will be there this weekend.


What struck me at the FDR was first, how beautiful it is every day of the year, and how much it engages the visitor, as evidenced by these snapshots.   (Above, notice that FDR’s finger and the dog’s ears are rubbed golden by admirers.)  It’s all thanks to the brilliant design by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, considered one of the world’s best.  (I love this article from the ASLA about how the memorial came to be.)


Touching is encouraged.


Life-size statues are great for photos, especially this wonderful, controversial one of FDR in a wheel chair.  It was added years after the memorial opened after pressure from disability rights groups.  (Celebrity tidbit: Actress Angelica Huston was sighted at review meetings for this statue, made by her late husband Robert Graham.)


Including the image of a spouse is a unique feature to this memorial and it’s proven to be popular, too.  Here, girls from a visiting school group joined Eleanor for a nice memory.  I do wish she didn’t look so glum.IMG_2969

This is one of six fountains in the 7.5-acre memorial and people were lined up to play and pose with it.

Just next door to the FDR as you walk along the blossom-less Tidal Basin is the memorial to Martin Luther King, which opened in 2011.  See the interaction between the visitors and the man and his story?  Me, neither.


This photo is typical of what I observed at the memorial.  It’s no wonder people aren’t engaged – there’s nothing here but one giant, grim statue of King, two more large masses of stone, and wall after wall of text.   There’s no way to see King up close, to touch him or be photographed with him or to amble through the telling of his story.

That’s the sad reality of memorials in the hail-the-dictator style.  For King of all people, this memorial seems so cold, so sad.  (I have hopes for a more engaging telling of King’s story by the Museum of African American History and Culture, now under construction.)

Biking eastward along the Mall, I found a few floral displays.

Hellebores blooming in the Bartholdi Garden, part of the USBG
Hellebores in the Bartholdi Garden, part of the USBG


Tulip Magnolias at the Air and Space Museum.


  1. I am so pleased that people are rubbing the dog’s ears. Says something about our love for those wonderful creatures and how we are drawn to them.

  2. Those are great statues, and I love the fountains. Interaction is very important for people to feel connected. (Is that why I touch my plants all the time?) It is really too bad that they didn’t make King more accessible to the people.

  3. Sometimes I think the designers of certain public art/memorials forget that such displays are more effective if we-the-people can be a part of them. All those kids around FDR? They will feel much more connected to FDR & his legacy after visiting his memorial than the same kids would at the MLK Jr memorial. FDR’s is warm & inviting; MLK’s is cold & distant – not a good tribute to the man and his dream.

  4. There is a sculpture park in Seattle ( with some interesting, large scale pieces surrounded by “Do not touch” signs. It’s stupid and shortsighted. Patina from touching should have been part of the plan, or they should have done what the ancient Romans did; put them out of reach on pedestals.

    When I was a little girl, there were stone camels from some ancient Chinese tomb outside the Seattle Art museum. Their backs were worn smooth from children “riding” them, myself included. The statues are inside now with “do not touch” signs, but there are facimiles outside for children to ride outside.

  5. Thank you for the interesting and thoughtful article. I haven’t seen either of these memorials yet, Susan (maybe by saying “yet” that means we might get back to Washington DC again).

    But we have visited the MLK monument on the University of Texas campus – the first visit was soon after it opened in 1999 and we’ve taken many visitors there over the years.

    While impressive, the depiction of Dr. King is still human. If you search for images of that statue you’ll find that it’s become a gathering place, a place for photos and a destination for groups of young people.

  6. You nailed it, Susan. I think this is also the reason why the Vietnam memorial is so powerful. You walk right up to the wall and touch the names….very personal even if you didn’t know any of the fallen personally. I am one of those who thinks there are too many memorials downtown anyway, but it is too bad they had to screw MLK’s up. He deserves better.

    • You caught the MLK memorial at a slow time. I’ve been there four times(night and day) and people were taking pictures in front of it and the various wall inscriptions. It will shine, once the landscaping around it matures. I found the Vietnam Memorial nice but dirty. Visitors need to do a better job of cleaning up after themselves. Trash was everywhere.

  7. This is interesting because I often have the opposite feeling but from a completely different context. I moved to Paris a few years ago and everytime I go to the Louvre I want to yell at people for touching the pieces. I’m amazed that people touch centuries old marbles and bronzes with their oily fingers. It’s not really the same as these monuments from an age/preservation/purpose perspective, but there’s a lot of worn spots on the works and I always wonder if their allowed to touch or are just breaking the rules and dont care.

  8. Agreed. The MLK memorial is something that looks majestic at far distance when you cross the Potomac to VA (or back again), but really not anything you connect to up close.

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