Michael Rubenstein was working for Mitchell/Giurgola when Kahn died. After Aldo Giurgola agreed to have his New York office take over Four Freedoms Park, Rubenstein became the project architect until the money ran out in 1975.
Giurgola “understood a lot about what Kahn was talking about, and he also understood the way he drew and thought,” says Rubenstein, who had greatly admired Kahn since his grad-student days at Penn.
Rubenstein worked with the late John Haaf, a former Kahn associate then working for David Wisdom and Associates in Philadelphia, which partnered with Mitchell/Giurgola. Between them, he adds, “the project went from the design development drawings to a complete set of working documents—in other words, that could go out for bid.”
Lois Sherr Dubin LAr’61, who also remembers Kahn as an inspirational figure during her Penn days, became the landscape architect for the project when Mitchell/Giurgola selected her firm, Villa/Sherr.
“We were part of that team starting in ’74, and finished the working drawings in ’75 when it was stopped,” she says. “I worked very closely with John Haaf, who had worked directly with Lou, and John was communicating to my partner and myself what Lou said. So I never felt that there were any hidden layers that we were not understanding. And I never heard the name Harriet mentioned. I just worked with John and knew nothing about anything prior to my involvement in it.”
(Above) Lois Sherr Dubin, framed by little-leaf lindens. (Below) Looking north along the allées toward the Renwick Ruin and the Queensboro Bridge.
The drawings “were done to the best of John Haaf’s and my ability to carry forward all of the ideas that Kahn had left, and the only firsthand knowledge that any of us had was through John,” says Rubenstein. “No one ever thought, ‘Well, we should ask Harriet what [Kahn] was thinking.’ It wasn’t part of the equation. I know that’s a sore spot with Nathaniel—and it should be. I mean, he’s their son. But at any rate, the project got to the point that we all felt it could be built and look like something that had been not only designed but thought thoroughly through by Lou Kahn.”
Haaf later moved to a remote area of British Columbia, where Whitaker tried, unsuccessfully, to reach him. He died last year, just seven months before Four Freedoms Park was dedicated.
Several things helped keep the dormant memorial alive in the public consciousness. One was “Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture,” a major exhibition co-curated by Penn professors David Brownlee (art history) and David DeLong GAr’63 (architecture), which opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1991 and at the Museum of Modern Art the following summer. Then, in April 1993, Alyce Russo, director of planning and development for the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC), convened a workshop that included some of the key players for Four Freedoms Park. In attendance were the two landscapers, Pattison and Sherr Dubin. Ostensibly the meeting was about the immediate matter of shaping the rough site and preparing it for construction. But other issues soon surfaced.
One concerned recent building-code changes regarding handicapped access, a subject that resonates in light of FDR’s own reliance on wheelchairs. That wasn’t a problem in the entrance area and the Garden, since one can easily bypass the stone staircase using the pathways on either side of the lawn. When you get to the Room, though, it’s trickier, since there are stairs leading down to the ha-ha area. Despite objections by Pattison and others at that workshop, the Mitchell/Giurgola architects added ramps to the drawings.
Then there were the trees. During the months that Pattison and Kahn had worked on the Garden, the projected size, configuration, spacing, and species of trees for the allées underwent a number of changes. (Kahn’s last known words on the subject were that the trees “should be of a low, overhanging type which would require little or no clipping.”) While little-leaf lindens were considered, Pattison and Whitaker say they were not the final choice and would require a lot of pruning to keep them at the appropriate height. The leading candidate by the time of Kahn’s death appears to have been the European hornbeam, though the important thing for Pattison was the trees’ configuration and suggestion of wildness.
The little-leaf lindens “were the trees that we talked about with John Haaf in ’74,” says Sherr Dubin. “There had been other suggestions, I guess, during the design period, but by the time the project became a reality and we had a year or two to find 120 matched trees of the right height and size that would withstand the site conditions—which were quite severe—there wasn’t a lot of choice. We picked what was available in the right size, and that, most importantly, seemed to reinforce the architectural concept of the plan.”
She isn’t worried about the height of the little-leaf lindens. “In another year or two, after they settle in, we’ll start pruning the tops,” she says. “So we’re going to control the height.” And when Hurricane Sandy roared through shortly after the opening ceremony, “we didn’t lose a tree,” she adds with palpable relief. “I think we hardly lost a twig.”
During that 1993 meeting, though, Pattison felt that the arboreal aspects of the landscaping had gone down the wrong path, and she let her displeasure be known.
“I was pretty vehement, and I wasn’t very nice,” she says. “I wasn’t asked back.” She doesn’t want to say anything more about it, and neither does Sherr Dubin.
“I think the outburst reflected the fact that Harriet had some pent-up frustration that the project had been carried forward without any input from her,” says Whitaker, who emphasizes that he is not criticizing Sherr Dubin for her more formal interpretation of the allées. “Did she take it out and direct it at Lois? Yeah. Did that perhaps marginalize her needlessly, whether it was her fault or not? Yeah. And frankly, there were no further discussions from the team in New York with Philadelphians.”
Whitaker would later make two detailed presentations to the Four Freedoms Park board: one before construction began in March 2009, and another, even more detailed, in August 2011. Joining him were Nathaniel, Sue Ann, and Alex Tyng, all of whom cared deeply about the execution of their father’s vision.
The night before the first presentation, he and Pattison were in the archives looking at a 1975 drawing when he realized that in it, the outside row of trees in the forecourt and the inside row of trees in the Garden were not aligned.
“She said, ‘They have to be aligned because that’s what unifies the two. If they’re not in alignment, that’s not right,’” Whitaker recalls. “So I went back over all the drawings, from the first schemes that were presented to the client to the last scheme that Kahn presented—and they were always in alignment.”
“That really helped us establish the geometry of the trees, which was absolutely critical to how the perspectival views in the park are established,” says Pollara. “It’s something that we relied on to alter what had been set down in the ’75 drawings, when the genesis of the geometry of trees had somehow been lost.”