Part One: A Look Back On The Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial, Ten Years In The Making
After the tragic and incomprehensible events of December 14, 2012 (known in town as 12/14) that left 20 first grade students and six faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary School dead, the world was in a state of grieving.
Temporary memorials were put up throughout Newtown to honor the lives taken through gun violence. It was in those sacred spaces that people openly wept, embraced loved ones, left meaningful mementos, and sought comfort in community.
While those commemorative spots were not meant to be kept intact forever, First Selectman Pat Llodra put a call out in early 2013 for a committee to work on creating a permanent memorial.
Nearly three dozen people with different personal backgrounds and professional experiences answered the call.
A group of 12 volunteers was selected and sworn in on October 7, 2013, by Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia Halstead after a Board of Selectmen meeting.
Those individuals were: Kyle Lyddy, JoAnn Bacon, Joanne Brunetti, Steffan Burns, Brian Engel, Daniel Krauss, Agni Pavlidou Kyprianou, Scarlett Lewis, Alan Martin, Sarah Middeleer, Tricia Pinto, and Donna Van Waalwijk.
Bacon, Engel, Lewis, and Pinto are parents of children who were killed in the shooting.
“You have great capacity and a diverse skill set to lead us in the right direction,” Llodra said of the carefully chosen group.
These residents became the Permanent Memorial Commission, which was soon retitled the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission (SHPMC). Lyddy was selected as chairman and Martin was chosen as vice chairman.
At the end of the official swearing in ceremony, Llodra told the commissioners, “Don’t rush to the end. It’s important with a group of 12 to be really good listeners — and listen with your heart, as well as with your head.”
Newtown Board of Selectmen went on to approve the SHPMC’s charge on September 16, 2013.
It stated that they were appointed “to lead the community through the process of determining the nature, location, and funding of a permanent memorial(s) to honor the memory of those lost in the Sandy Hook School shooting on December 14, 2012, in order to make a recommendation to the Board of Selectmen and provide interim requests for information as required.”
According to the charge, other specific expectations for the commission also included that they must: solicit ideas to be submitted for consideration and review offers and suggestions received from many interested persons and organizations; directly solicit input and meaningfully engage with: families of victims and survivors, Sandy Hook School faculty and staff, and Sandy Hook School parents; conduct public hearings for community input; work with Town Departments in determining available/appropriate locations; conduct all of its review and decision-making consistent with public processes; and conduct inquiries as the Commission deems necessary.
What the charge could not define or predict was that the process would also entail painstaking hours and emotional vulnerability that would be crucial to bringing a permanent memorial to fruition.
In February 2014, the SHPMC met with Joe Daniels, president and CEO of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, and 9/11 Memorial Project Manager Abigail Mullins to receive advice on how to begin.
At the time, the commission had also reached out to other communities affected by tragedies and that have successfully created permanent memorials, including Columbine High School in Colorado.
By July of that year, the SHPMC created a Q&A document to educate the public on how they would phase the information gathering process.
In addition to having public meetings, the community was invited to keep up with the permanent memorial’s process through the town website as well as social media pages, including Facebook @SandyHookPermanentMemorial and Twitter @SHPermMemorial.
On October 9, 2014, sixth grader Ben Paley and Sandy Hook Elementary School art teacher Leslie Gunn presented the SHPMC with a proposed plan for a small monument honoring those who died. Ben was a fourth-grade student at the time of the shooting.
The following month, the commission heard more memorial ideas, this time from two local artists: Richmond Jones and David Merrill.
Despite the group not approving any designs at this point, they were open to listening to what the public wanted to show them.
At the start of 2015, the SHPMC started hosting community forums and reported the feedback it received to the Board of Selectmen.
Location, Location, Location
Upon determining that there was indeed a need for a permanent memorial, the stage of brainstorming a location began. The SHPMC was open to private land donors, as well as town-owned sites for it.
A site subcommittee was created that included Martin, Van Waalwijk, and Pinto.
“We looked at 17 sites around town and the very first site we looked at was [SAC Field]. We rejected it, because it was too close to the school and event and was too painful, so we said no,” Martin told The Newtown Bee in December 2022.
At one point, the memorial commission focused on a less than one acre site in the corner of High Meadow at Fairfield Hills Campus.
It made it so far along as a leading spot that the group consulted with Gary Sorge, vice president of Stantec Consulting Services, for advice on possible access routes to the site.
Even though some residents expressed that the location would be a good fit for the permanent memorial, many others voiced concerns about the piece of open space being developed. The area has scenic walking trails and is home to various flora and fauna.
By May 2016, after much deliberation, the SHPMC decided not to pursue that controversial location, and instead considered three potential sites near the Keating Farms Avenue cul-de-sac.
The commission also showed interest in a site adjacent to the northeast corner of Wasserman Way and Nunnawauk Road that bordered Pootatuck Fish and Game Club land. When members went out to visit the property, they found they could hear gunshots from a skeet shooting area and were not comfortable with it being considered anymore.
During this time of analyzing possible locations, the commission continued to consult town agencies, residents, professionals, and then update the Board of Selectmen on its progress.
Ultimately, those potential sites were rejected, and the commission returned to SAC Field on Riverside Road in October to reconsider it.
“We went back to the site on a balmy fall day, and we heard the kids playing on the playground. The leaves were down, so you could see them and hear them. We said, ‘This is it, this is our site.’ We came full circle and recommended it to the full commission, then recommended it to the Board of Selectmen,” Martin shared.
The land includes a lower meadow, upper meadow, and two ponds, which are located toward the back of the property.
When the recommendation was officially made, the town began negotiations with SAC Field Board of Trustees to find out if the land could be donated or had to be purchased.
In March 2017, SHPMC announced that SAC Field Board of Trustees member George Lockwood signed the legal document to transfer the property from his organization to the Town of Newtown as a contribution to the town.
Lyddy stated at that time, “Our commission has worked hard to get to this point and, while this is an important step in our process, we are reminded with every decision we make as to the reason we are doing this work. It’s important that never be lost through this process.”
In the spring of 2017, SHPMC’s Design Subcommittee members Middeleer and Pavlidou Kyprianou met with Newtown resident Jim Ryan. He owns a multidisciplinary architecture & land survey firm and was on the town’s Conservation Commission.
Ryan was able to give the committee information about how to best utilize the land at SAC Field, without designing the memorial itself, which they in turn brought to the rest of the commission’s attention.
At this stage, the SHPMC also began discussing fundraising options and developed a submission guidelines document.
After months of constructing and fine-tuning the details and dates for the submission guidelines document, the commission sought input from town agencies during the summer months. Those groups included Newtown’s Land Use Agency, Parks & Recreation, and Board of Selectmen.
The feedback the SHPMC received was incorporated in to craft the final version — Version 26 — of the design guidelines document. It was released to the public on September 22, 2017.
All interested designers, including but not limited to architects and artists, were invited to apply individually or as teams. Emerging design professionals, such as students, were also encouraged to submit a design.
Those who wanted to participate were asked to digitally fill out a registration form, biographical statement, then submit their design by December 15.
The latter component consisted of a one-page project narrative, drawings of the full site plan and specific core aspects, elevations, sections, and 3D renderings and/or illustrative drawings.
Now they had to wait and see what designs would come their way to review.
Be sure to pick up a copy of The Newtown Bee’s January 13 print edition for part two of this story.
Reporter Alissa Silber can be reached at email@example.com.