Part Two: Designers, Commissioners Look Back On Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Process
See Part 1 of this story in the January 6 print edition or at newtownbee.com.
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.
On September 22, 2017, the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission (SHPMC) released its document, “Guidelines for Submitting a Design For the Construction of a Permanent Memorial to Honor the Lives Lost at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012.”
Submissions were to be sent in by December 15.
As the group was about to embark on this pivotal step of receiving design submissions for the memorial, they assembled an advisory panel of experts to help them for when the design assessing stage began.
The panel included: Llodra, who would continue on the panel after her time as first selectman ended that year; Bob Mitchell, chairman of Newtown Public Building & Site; Rob Sibley, deputy director of planning for the Land Use Agency; Joe Daniels, former president of the 9/11 commission; Allison Blais, executive vice president and deputy director of strategy and advancement for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum; Tom Tavella, PLA, FALSA, LEED AP | Principal Alta Planning + Design, Inc; and Shavaun Towers, co-founder of New Haven landscape and architecture firm Towers Golde.
In the meantime, design submissions from all over the world began to flood in.
By October 22, 2017, SHPMC chairman Kyle Lyddy announced that they had already received 54 submissions, some of which came from China, Israel, and New Zealand.
Individuals/organizations that submitted a design were given a personal identification code. They were also instructed to set an appointment to visit the permanent memorial property on Riverside Road, formerly SAC Field.
Members of the SHPMC and Town of Newtown took part in leading guided site walks with potential designers through December. Video and photos of the property were also available on the SHPMC website.
At the following month’s meeting, after more designers had registered, Lyddy shared, “The registrations represent 17 states and 18 countries currently; 75 percent of the submissions are from the United States and 50 percent are from Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts, so very localized.”
He added that about a hundred guided walks of the property had been done thus far.
The Newtown Bee received a guided walk of the property, led by SHPMC members Dan Krauss and Sarah Middeleer, in early December 2017.
“Upon entering the property’s driveway, the terrain starts with a flat plot of land, which still has some chain link fencing up from its former baseball field days. There have been discussions at previous SHPMC meetings indicating this portion of land may be suited for accommodating parking, but it has not been made a requirement for designers,” the article stated.
A trail system on-site allowed for access to the lower levels of the memorial property and to the two man-made ponds. One of the ponds even had an old diving board still attached to it.
During the tour, Krauss explained how the SAC Field property has a history of children happily playing on the land. When he envisions how children would play ball on the upper levels and how perhaps at one point children might have taken a swim in the ponds, it feels like a good fit for honoring the legacies of those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
SHPMC and its Advisory Panel began reviewing the submitted permanent memorial designs on January 10, 2018.
SHPMC Vice Chair Alan Martin told The Newtown Bee in December 2022, “It was overwhelming. We had 189 submissions from 30 states and six countries. It was a truly international competition.”
This stage in the process was called “Phase 1-A: Design Submissions” and kept the designers’ names and background information anonymous, with only an identification code shared.
Each member of the commission and panel was able to digitally review the design files prior to the meeting to compile notes. They also received large binders with physical copies of the designs.
Lyddy showed the digital images one-by-one on the projector for the group to see. He encouraged the commission and panel to share what they liked and what they did not like.
Then only the SHPMC would vote whether to eliminate the design from the running or keep it for further consideration.
At the first meeting the group reviewed 30 permanent memorial design submissions. One design that caught their eye and was unanimously kept for the next round was labeled SH37 – unbeknownst to them at the time, it would ultimately be the final design.
The submission sparked positive responses the moment its images were projected on the screen for everyone to view.
SHPMC member JoAnn Bacon, who is the mother of first grader Charlotte Bacon who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School on 12/14, said, “Visually, I like this one a lot.”
The design plan showed images of a “Sacred Sycamore Tree” (that got its name from the intention of incorporating the sacred soil beneath it) and a manufactured pool with names of the victims carved in stone surrounding it. Middeleer raised concerns over how expensive a project like that design could be, for example having to regrade nearly the entire site to accomplish the design. It led to a conversation about the ability to modify elements and materials later.
Towers said that she thinks if they keep the essence of the design and work with it, that it would be possible to achieve the project. These design evaluation meetings continued January 11, January 18, February 7, February 8, and February 13. Each meeting took hours as the designs were meticulously discussed and considered.
At the end of the process, 13 top designs were selected to move forward for consideration for “Phase 1-B: Chosen Designs.”
Family, Community Feedback
After all the submissions were reviewed, the designs were put on the SHPMC’s website for the public to have access to. There was an online form that people could send to the SHPMC with comments.
The families directly impacted by 12/14 were contacted privately and invited to give their feedback, as well.
On March 8, 2018, the SHPMC and Advisory Panel member Bob Mitchell met at Edmond Town Hall to go over the families’ feedback on each of those 13 designs and discuss how the community could further participate in the process.
The top designs were created and put on display at Newtown High School on March 15 and Newtown Municipal Center’s Council Chambers on March 17 to encourage in-person feedback.
Prior to the SHPMC’s April 2018 meeting, Lyddy announced to The Newtown Bee on April 11 that he had decided to step down from his position as chairman and would no longer remain a member.
“I’m humbled to have been a part of this group — it’s one that has respected each other’s ideas, thoughts, and emotions during this very difficult task. I wish this work never had to have been done and am so sorry to each of those who have been impacted so deeply by this tragedy,” part of his statement read.
First Selectman Dan Rosenthal filled in as leader of the SHPMC during upcoming meetings to help guide the group through the change.
On April 12, Rosenthal said that in addition to voting on a new chairman, the commissioners should strongly consider adding another voting member to the group.
At this point in the journey, the group was down to nine people with Steffan Burns and Scarlett Lewis having left the commission in previous years.
Rosenthal suggested they think about adding former First Selectman Pat Llodra as a member, since she had been overseeing their work while she was office. It would also make for a smooth transition because she was currently on the SHPMC’s Advisory Panel.
During a special meeting on April 30, SHPMC unanimously voted Krauss as chairman, to which he said he was surprised, but honored.
Llodra was later unanimously brought in as an official new member.
Reflecting on this time, Llodra told The Newtown Bee in December 2022, “For many months prior to retiring as the First Selectman I had hoped to be appointed to the SHPMC, so I was grateful and pleased to receive that appointment in 2018 …
“Individual members and committee leadership demonstrated the highest and best levels of commitment, collaboration, respect, and patience. I developed a great deal of respect and admiration for this group of volunteers and hoped to one day be their colleague at the committee level, to help in whatever fashion I could.”
Commissioners have spoken highly of Llodra throughout the years, as a First Selectman and group member.
SHPMC member Donna Van Waalwijk told The Newtown Bee in December 2022, “Adding Pat Llodra on was great. She was amazing. She had gotten us through 12/14 in her elegant way — I can’t image what she went through. She was a great leader through it all. I was so excited we added her on.”
The group continued deliberation on the top 13 memorial designs and narrowed them down to three contenders on April 10.
With the top three designs newly selected, Krauss revealed the designers for each submission: SH37 was submitted by designers Ben Waldo and Daniel Affleck of SWA Group from Berkeley, California; SH108 was submitted by Justin Arleo of Arleo Design Studio LLC from Tempe, Arizona; and SH240 was submitted by Joan Macleod of Damon Farber Landscape Architects from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Each designer was then sent a letter from the commission requesting that they come to Newtown to give a presentation about their design on Tuesday, July 10.
With a board restructuring and a clear path forward, the SHPMC was about to hit the ground running and make a decision for the permanent memorial.
Be sure to pick up a copy of The Newtown Bee’s January 20 print edition for part three of this story.
Reporter Alissa Silber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.