On April 12, 1965, a small group of people gathered at the triangular plot on Pennsylvania Avenue near the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.
They were family and close friends of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and were assembled to dedicate a memorial to the late President on the 20th anniversary of his death.
The memorial was very much unlike the current FDR Memorial on the tidal basin. It was—and still is—a small and simple block of marble made from the same quarry as the FDR’s gravestone at Hyde Park, NY. The memorial was paid for by private donations that were not made public (although their names are sealed into the base of the stone).
The modest design was intentional—on September 26, 1941, Roosevelt had told his friend Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter:
“If any memorial is erected to me, I know exactly what I should like it to be. I should like it to consist of a block about the size of this (putting his hand on his desk) and placed in the center of that green plot in front of the Archives Building. I don’t care what it is made of, whether limestone or granite or whatnot, but I want it plain without any ornamentation, with the simple carving, ‘In Memory of ____’.”
Those words are engraved on a plaque in front of the memorial.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, who missed the dedication because he was throwing the first pitch at the Washington Senators baseball game, later stopped by to place a wreath at the memorial.
Johnson also issued a statement honoring FDR which began, “Twenty years ago—wearied by war, strained by the cares and triumphs of many years—the great heart of Franklin Roosevelt came to a stop. Most of us here shared the darkness of that day, as we had shared the difficult and shining days which had gone before. And wherever we were, when the unbelievable word came, for a moment the light seemed to waver and dim. But we were wrong about that. For he had worked too well. What he had set aflame was far beyond the poor and futile power of death to put out.”
Today you can visit the original FDR Memorial by stopping by the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 9th Street, NW, next to the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.