72nd Street and Riverside Drive, Manhattan
This statue of Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a champion of human rights, sits on a street corner in Riverside Park, as if she had just been asked how she'd like her statue to be posed and was thinking about her answer when the sculptor snapped her picture.
The statue is eight feet tall and stands at the corner of 72nd Street and Riverside Drive in a reclaimed part of the park that used to be an access ramp for the Henry Hudson Parkway. Eleanor sits on the edge of a large chiseled boulder, her left hand at her chin as she gazes thoughtfully toward the street. ("Perhaps on a stallion," she must be thinking, "with a sword and breastplate..." -- Click.) Her figure stands in the shade of several trees, surrounded at her feet by an enormous raised planter of ground cover and mulch, making her as inaccessible as if she were atop a 15-foot pedestal. (Like the statue of Joan of Arc up the street.)
It's the first public monument to an American woman to be commissioned by the City of New York; it's also the first statue of an American woman in the city that was designed to be a public monument from the beginning. (Uh, err, ...also, it is the only such statue of an American woman in the city.) The drive behind fund raising and construction was a direct effort to fill that void. The froglike-- err, Buddha-like statue of Gertrude Stein in Bryant Park was dedicated four years earlier, but that was first sculpted in 1923 and copies of the work had lounged for decades in several public and private collections around the country.
Thousands turned out, if the story in the next day's Times can be believed, when the statue of Roosevelt was dedicated in a ceremony that began at 1 p.m. on Oct. 5, 1996. The crowd sang along, we are told, to "Happy Days Are Here Again," cheered the assembled dignitaries (including then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and then-first lady Hillary Clinton) and "gasped" when the statue was unveiled.
Clinton, in her remarks, alluded to her habit at the time of conjuring up Mrs. Roosevelt, who died in 1962, for reassuring, imaginary conversations. "When I last spoke to Mrs. Roosevelt," Clinton told the throng, "she wanted me to tell all of you how pleased she is by this great, great new statue." The left-leaning crowd later hooted when Giuliani was introduced, but obliged him with applause when he offered the expected praise of Roosevelt.
The effort to get the monument built took about eight years. "I still have to keep pinching myself," Franklin D. Roosevelt III, then-co-chairman of the Eleanor Roosevelt Monument Fund, told The Times, "to believe it's really happening." Most of the delay was for bureaucratic reasons, according to the sculptor, Penelope Jencks, though she admitted to spending eight months searching for just the right boulder to lean Roosevelt against. She decided, in the end, to design one herself. And, in fact, she incorporated the boulder into the armature of the sculpture, so it's really all one piece.
Roosevelt's great-granddaughter, Phoebe Roosevelt, was the model for the statue's upper body. Other models were used for other body parts.
The statue was cast by the Paul King Foundry of Johnston, R.I.; Giuliano Checchinelli of Barre, Vt., carved the boulder Jencks designed in black granite. ("He was an excellent carver," Jencks wrote to New York City Statues, "and did such a great job that the bronze fit the granite exactly.")
The monument cost $1.3 million, much of that going toward landscaping the site, "because we thought," Herbert Zohn, another co-chairman of the monument fund, told The New York Times on July 16, 1992, "it was in her pragmatic spirit that a sculpture of her would improve a park, not just be a monument." The bill was footed by the city, the state and the monument fund.
In the walkway that skirts the monument, there are two round paving stones with inscriptions. One, a quote from a speech Roosevelt made on March 27, 1958, to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, reads:
WHERE AFTER ALL,
DO UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS BEGIN?
IN SMALL PLACES, CLOSE TO HOME
SUCH ARE THE PLACES
WHERE EVERY MAN, WOMAN AND CHILD
SEEKS EQUAL JUSTICE,
The second paving stone is a famous quote by Adlai Stevenson a day after Roosevelt died:
SHE WOULD RATHER LIGHT A CANDLE
THAN CURSE THE DARKNESS
AND HER GLOW
HAS WARMED THE WORLD
There also are two bronze plaques, one containing a wearying biography:
ANNA ELEANOR ROOSEVELT
BORN IN NEW YORK CITY ON OCTOBER 11, 1884, SHE WAS ORPHANED AT AGE
TEN AND EDUCATED IN ENGLAND. SHE MARRIED FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT
IN 1905 AND BORE SIX CHILDREN BETWEEN 1906 AND 1916. SHE BECAME A
LEADER IN NEW YORK STATE'S DEMOCRATIC PARTY IN THE 1920'S AND SERVED
ACTIVELY FOR FOUR YEARS AS WIFE OF GOVERNOR ROOSEVELT. FROM 1933
TO 1945 SHE GREATLY EXPANDED THE ROLE OF FIRST LADY OF THE
UNITED STATES. SHE FOUGHT FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF LABOR, MINORITIES,
THE POOR, WOMEN AND YOUNG PEOPLE. SHE WAS APPOINTED UNITED STATES
DELEGATE TO THE UNITED NATIONS BY PRESIDENT TRUMAN IN 1946. AS CHAIR
OF THE UNITED NATIONS COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS, SHE LED THE
SUCCESSFUL EFFORT THAT SECURED PASSAGE OF THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION
OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN 1948. SHE CONTINUED HER WORK AS TEACHER, WRITER,
ADVOCATE, AND HUMANITARIAN UNTIL HER DEATH ON NOVEMBER 7, 1962.
SHE IS REMEMBERED AS THE "FIRST LADY OF THE WORLD."
The other plaque has the requisite blah, blah, blah most public monuments feel compelled to report, which also lists the sculptor's name, the relevant governmental dignitaries and the following hoo-ha:
THE ELEANOR ROOSEVELT MONUMENT FUND EXPRESSES ITS GRATITUDE
TO THESE INDIVIDUALS AND ORGANIZATIONS FOR THE GENEROSITY AND TALENT
THAT HELPED RESTORE THE SOUTH LAWN OF RIVERSIDE PARK
AND CREATED THIS MONUMENT TO ELEANOR ROOSEVELT.
About the only controversy attached to the monument, apart from the fact that it wasn't commissioned 20 years earlier, happened in 2000 when the city blocked plans to replace a nearby temporary dog run with a $150,000 permanent one. The community board had given grudging support for the idea, but several neighbors, apparently believing Mrs. Roosevelt's dignity was at stake, rose up in opposition. One man, quoted in a Times story published Feb. 13, 2000, called the existing dog run a "noisy cesspool," adding, "Many people on the West Side feel very strongly about Eleanor Roosevelt, and building a dog run nearby is no way to celebrate her." ...Arf.
This indignant neighbor went on to accuse rogue dog owners of unleashing their pets outside the run, allowing the animals to defecate around and on the statue. A fantastical claim that was rebutted as "clutching at straws" by a history-minded resident, who went on to point out that the Roosevelts were "known to be dog lovers."
In something of a final word on the subject, Henry J. Stern, the parks commissioner at the time, reminded everyone that, though a dog run could be a nuisance, "Eleanor is one West Sider the barking won't disturb." Today, the noisy cesspool still bustles.
Eleanor Roosevelt was born Oct. 11, 1884, and died Nov. 7, 1962. She is probably the most famous female political leader in American history. Read more about her here.
Updated Nov. 10, 2007