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Part Five: Designers, Commissioners Look Back On Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Process



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See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of this story in the January 6, 13, 20, and 27 print edition, respectively, 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, then-First Selectman Pat Llodra put a call out in early 2013 for a committee to work on creating a permanent memorial.

By January 2020, the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission (SHPMC) was on track with its time line for creating the long-awaited project.

Just as the commissioners were about to focus on building more community engagement around the memorial, the COVID-19 pandemic began impacting Connecticut in March 2020.

Certain aspects of the project had to be adjusted due to the inability to travel and gather in person, but the Town of Newtown continued communication with Dan Affleck and Ben Waldo of the design firm SWA Group, based in California.

First Selectman Dan Rosenthal announced at Newtown Public Building & Site Commission’s (PB&SC) virtual meeting on July 28, 2020, that after interviewing multiple candidates, Downes Construction Company had been selected to manage pre-construction. The decision got the official stamp of approval by the Newtown Board of Selectman (BOS) on August 3.

Downes Construction Company’s services would later be extended for the entirety of building the memorial.

Newtown also hired ARTEMIS Landscape Architects, located on Washington Avenue in Sandy Hook, run by principal/founder Tara Vincenta.

Waldo told The Newtown Bee that then-PB&SC Chairman and SHPMC Advisory Board Member Robert “Bob” Mitchell was instrumental during the stage of selecting local contractors.

“He was the one that recommended working with a local landscape architect, and he gave us different options of who he thought might work. One of them was Tara at ARTEMIS, which we immediately thought she had the best artistic sensibility for the job as well as being right down the street from the memorial,” Waldo said.

Vincenta and her team were entrusted with the selection and design of all the plantings for the memorial as well as the irrigation design.

Vincenta told The Newtown Bee, “We worked closely on plant procurement with GT Landscape to ensure the health and uniformity of the plantings. Throughout the construction process, we attended all of the owner/architect meetings, as well as PB&SC meetings. We were an active part of the design team that advised the town through the construction process. We were aware of and weighed in on all of the nuances of design and construction as the project evolved to create the highest result possible within the budget.”

SHPMC member Sarah Middeleer shared that Vincenta did “a great job” working on the project. “Her task was huge and complicated, and she got a whole lot done in a very compressed time-frame,” she said.

SHPMC Support

Throughout the final months of 2020 and into 2021, the SHPMC had sporadic meetings to receive updates on the project.

Llodra, who became a SHPMC member, reflected on this time, saying, “The First Selectman’s office ensured that the committee was well informed about most aspects of project construction … Management decisions were properly in the hands of the First Selectman, but committee input was regularly invited and considered.”

Commissioners had the opportunity to give feedback on important elements such as the type of stone for the water feature, the gravel for the walkways, and the “Memorial Etiquette” signage.

They also unanimously approved the inscription for a President Barack Obama quote from when he visited Newtown following the tragedy.

It reads, “Here in Newtown, I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation. I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts. I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief; that our world too has been torn apart; that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you.”

SHPMC member Donna Van Waalwijk recalled how working with the town, designers, and other project members “was all done very smoothly.”

Much-Anticipated Referendum

In February 2021, Rosenthal let the SHPMC know that the town had “a very good cost estimate.” It put the memorial project on track with the $3.7 million budget that was decided on at the end of 2019.

With the budget in order, Rosenthal shared that the Legislative Council unanimously approved sending the project to referendum for April 27, 2021.

On April 5, 2021, The Newtown Bee partnered with the Town of Newtown to provide a free, two-part series webcast entitled “Watch & Learn Before You Vote.” Part One helped educate the community about the permanent memorial budget on the upcoming ballot.

The panel discussion included Rosenthal, Mitchell, SHPMC chairman Dan Krauss, Affleck and Waldo, Vincenta, as well as construction manager Jeff Anderson from Downes Construction Company. The video can still be viewed on The Newtown Bee’s YouTube channel.

The project’s $3.2 million capital bonding authorization passed the referendum.

In June, The Newtown Bee also reported that in the 2021 Legislative Session, the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a state bonding package to fund a number of projects, including a substantial grant to help underwrite the cost of the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial.

Newtown’s Legislative Delegation — Senator Tony Hwang and State Representatives Raghib Allie-Brennan, Mitch Bolinsky, and Tony Scott — worked with Governor Ned Lamont’s office and Rosenthal to secure a $2.6 million grant allocation for the memorial.

Sen Hwang, the ranking senator on the bonding subcommittee, said, “Securing grant-in-aid to supplement town-approved funding for the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial was a successful team effort which will bring to fruition an important tribute which will provide a step forward toward closure and healing from an incredibly emotional time for our community. I want to give a special acknowledgement to members of the SHPMC, volunteers who have diligently and respectfully planned this memorial for the past number of years.”

Construction Begins

Affleck recalled, “We went through a pretty rapid construction design phase after they did the [referendum] vote and we heard that it passed.”

Before construction officially began on August 23, 2021, SHPMC members gathered for a small ceremony at the memorial site on Riverside Road.

Krauss told The Newtown Bee, “All the families were invited, the commission was there, Dan [Rosenthal] was there. It was in the grass field and what they had done is have someone come out and mark where the things would be. It was to mark the end of the planning phase and start the construction.”

Commissioners would later visit the property from time to time with Rosenthal to see how construction was going.

While much of the work by SWA Group was done remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Affleck did have the opportunity to fly out to select the sycamore tree in person with Vincenta at a nursery on the border of Connecticut and New York.

Waldo explained, “Dan was more involved in the project management, client relationship, and ongoing relationship with the commission. I was more involved in the construction observation. I came out maybe seven times starting in December 2021 for various milestones of the construction process. They were in active construction from late August of 2021 to all the way through the winter — they didn’t stop. It was a fairly mild winter last year, so they were able to keep going.”

Affleck added, “They had big heat lamps out there. I was amazed because we are not used to this kind of weather, but they worked through the cold.”

Private Ceremony

The Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial at 32 Riverside Road was opened for a brief, invitation-only ceremony on November 12, 2022.

There were approximately 200 people in attendance, including the SHPMC, first responders, the Newtown statehouse delegation, Gov Lamont, Lt Governor Susan Bysiewicz, and families of 12/14 victims.

Vincenta, who was in attendance said, “It was deeply moving and overwhelming for me to see the families gathered at the completed memorial. I hope the memorial and the natural environment brings the families and the community healing and comfort.”

Guests walked around the site, put commemorative wreaths in the circulating water, and read the names of all the victims that were carved in stone around the Sacred Sycamore.

Krauss recalled how transformative it was to see everyone at the ceremony and said, “It really brought the memorial alive with this buzzing of activity.”

Waldo shared a similar outlook, saying, “When you stand up at the top and look down at the space and see people ambulating around, it really feels alive in a way that you hope and imagine. You never really internalize it until you see it in action.”

Affleck added, “The reception of the memorial and watching people interact with it has been the most rewarding aspect to me.”

The program began with a moment of silence in memory of those who died and all their names were later read aloud.

Rosenthal also recognized the recent passing of the late Robert Mitchell, who died October 6, 2021. While Mitchell was not able to see the memorial completed, Rosenthal honored him for his vital service to the community.

There were several speakers, including a moving speech by JoAnn Bacon, who is both a SHPMC member and mother of Charlotte Bacon who died on 12/14, and SHPMC Vice Chair Alan Martin.

Martin told The Newtown Bee that he was thrilled with the turnout at the ceremony, especially getting to see Affleck and Waldo.

“When I saw them at the dedication, we gave each other a hug. They are fine young men … They were delightful to work with in every way — interpersonally, creatively. Anything we needed from them, we got,” Martin said.

Van Waalwijk agreed that it was special to see all the people who worked on the memorial over the years be in the same place together.

“It was kind of a culmination of the whole project. It was touching to have us all together,” she said.

Open To The Public

On November 13, 2022, the SHPMC posted a message to its Facebook page that read, “Today, The Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial officially opened to the public. We hope that when you visit you feel a sense of reverence and love for those who tragically lost their lives, but also a hope for the future. All are welcome. It is the hope of the commission that those visiting do so with respect for the victims, as well as respect others visiting.”

From that day on, the memorial has been open to the public from sunrise to sunset and people from all over the world have visited the site.

No pets, except for qualified support animals, are allowed on the property. Additional guest guidelines are listed on the Memorial Etiquette sign on the path leading to the site.

Rosenthal told The Newtown Bee in November 2022, “After December 14th it will be open on a weather permitting basis as it will not be maintained during and after snow and/or ice fall. Parking is limited, however, so we respectfully ask for patience when visiting.”

On December 15, the memorial’s water feature was drained, but will be refilled in the spring of 2023.

Final Sentiments

Whether someone was part of the project since the SHPMC’s inception nearly a decade ago or joined later, the consensus has been similar that there is a feeling of pride to have been part of it in some way.

Martin said, “I’m truly honored to play such a significant part. We delivered to the town, and we delivered to the families a beautiful, appropriate memorial.”

Llodra called the SHPMC “an extraordinary work of commitment, love, collegiality, skills, insight, and wisdom” that she was honored to be a part of that effort.

Van Waalwijk was thankful for Llodra being part of the commission and for being a “great leader” during her time as First Selectman. Van Waalwjik also gave special thanks to First Selectman Executive Assistant Sue Marcinek, clerk Lynn Kovack, former Land Use Agency Director George Benson and Deputy Director Rob Sibley, and Rosenthal.

Vincenta, too, was “honored” to be part of the team, and said, “Everyone involved was deeply committed and went above and beyond to create the beautiful outcome you experience at the memorial.”

Middeleer said, “It was a great honor to be on this commission and to contribute to the creation of this memorial. Nothing will ever erase the excruciating pain experienced by the families whose loved ones were murdered, but I sincerely hope that the memorial will offer them some solace.”

Krauss said that not only is the memorial beautiful and fits Newtown, but it is also symbolic in that “You see the tree alive and growing, and to me that is a hope for the future.”

Affleck summarized, “It’s a living memorial. It needs to be taken care of; it needs maintenance. It belongs to the town, and it is a fragile thing in some sense. It is going to require love, maintenance, and care. There is a fragility, and it asks people to engage with it. I hope people pick it up and there is an institutional support for its longevity. It will outlive us all.”

Reporter Alissa Silber can be reached at alissa@thebee.com.

Dozens of the 200-plus guests circle the newly opened Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial following a brief invitation-only ceremony November 12, which featured heartfelt remarks from Governor Ned Lamont, who was among the attendees with his wife, Ann, and Lt Governor Susan Bysiewicz. —Bee Photos, Voket
From left is Downes Construction Company Vice President of Preconstruction Jeffrey Anderson and Public Building & Site Commission member Sally Feuerberg standing at the future site of the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial, on Riverside Road, in August 2021. —Bee file photo
The entrance to the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial, at 38 Riverside Road, has a large gray stone to indicate to guests where to drive in. —Bee Photo, Silber
There is a “Memorial Etiquette” sign positioned at the start of the walkway down to the memorial from the parking lot. It reads, in part, “This is a place of reverence and quiet reflection. Please be considerate while sharing this space with other visitors. Be respectful with your language and tone and allow space for private contemplation.” —Bee Photo, Silber
Upon descending down the pathway to the memorial, there is a stone with a metal inscription that describes why the memorial was created. It also includes a quote from President Barack Obama from when he visited Newtown shortly after December 14, 2012. —Bee Photo, Silber
There are pathways throughout the permanent memorial for visitors to walk along and reflect. The site is pictured on December 9, 2022, but there will be many flowers blooming throughout the property in the springtime. —Bee Photo, Silber
There are two ponds on the memorial’s property that were heavily cleaned up to be more aesthetically pleasing to visitors. There is even a stone bench along the trail where people can sit and look out to the water or the memorial, whichever they choose. —Bee Photo, Silber
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