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Out of Horror, Beauty: A Visit to the New Sandy Hook Memorial

Photo: Neil Landino

How do you commemorate an event that is both uniquely awful and appallingly routine? I wish we could remember the Sandy Hook school shooting as an anomaly, the instant before everything changed. But it wasn’t. While it utterly transformed dozens of families and hundreds of lives, it left the regular rhythms of American tragedy no different. Instead, it became the horror we might forget to be shocked by, because there will always be another massacre of the innocents to remember, and another after that.

Just off a pretty, winding road in suburban Connecticut, in a hollow between the rebuilt school and a woodsy swamp, lies the moving new memorial to the victims of that day, December 14, 2012. Made mostly of water, plants, and rock, it’s not meant to comment on a social problem or hold up failures of policy; it doesn’t answer the sustained, malicious, and depraved effort to pretend that the Sandy Hook murders never took place at all. Instead, this garden of remembrance has a narrower, equally urgent purpose: to memorialize the 20 children and six adults who died in classrooms and hallways.

I visited the memorial on a bright, late-fall afternoon, a few days before its dedication, when the young plantings had already stripped down ahead of the coming chill and, just beyond, a pair of ponds winked through sparse woods. A late scattering of black-eyed Susans and orange clusters of winter gold lent some Seurat dots of color to the brown-and-tan dell. Come springtime, a perimeter of blossoming dogwoods will enfold the clearing in a cottony veil. In summer, the plantings will grow into a dense city of grasses. The memorial’s melancholy quiet will be wrapped in the joyous din of bugs and frogs.

Like so many deceptively simple projects, it took years to complete. Ben Waldo and Daniel Affleck, both landscape architects at SWA in San Francisco, entered the design competition in 2017 without letting their employers know. Only when they were selected as finalists did the firm find out, and it quickly kicked in resources and expertise to help move from an idea to a buildable plan. Assembling a consensus and the public funds in Newtown took longer, because democracy moves more slowly than design or construction.

It was worth the wait. You arrive at the memorial from above. A gently sloping ramp loops down a slope, leaving behind the noise of traffic and the sight of houses. You immediately see the whole layout, made up of interlocking circles, but the experience changes as you move through it. The path makes its roundabout way toward a fountain with a lone London plane tree at the center. The silence gets stiller as you descend until it’s replaced by the lulling white noise of what sounds like a creek but is actually the fountain, whose rim is lined with pumps that stir tiny ripples on the surface of the pool. Float an object on the water — a twig, a boat, a memorial candle — and it slips fitfully around the edge, pulled in toward the center then out again, its path made unpredictable by the breeze.

The names of the dead surround the pool, in which the water is not quite still.
As you approach, the layout is evident but the experience is not. The names of the dead surround the pool, in which the water is not quite still. David Lloyd.
As you approach, the layout is evident but the experience is not. The names of the dead surround the pool, in which the water is not quite still. Davi... As you approach, the layout is evident but the experience is not. The names of the dead surround the pool, in which the water is not quite still. David Lloyd.

While I ambled, Jason Smith, the builder at Downes Construction who captained the project, showed a worker how to sharpen the border between gravel pathway and mulch bed. The whole place is a mixture of the meticulous and the improvisational. You sense the loving craftsmanship before you appreciate its details, like the laboriously achieved precision of the fountain’s walls formed by stepped and staggered strips of granite, with the names of the dead carved on the lip. Like the sculpted undulations of the site, planted with native species by Tara Vincenta, the founder of Artemis Landscape Architects. Like the sensitive placement of found stones: During the excavation, as diggers unearthed jagged boulders and chunks of an old wall, Smith set them aside and encouraged Waldo and Affleck to incorporate them into the design. Some now serve as rough benches along the curving paths. One large hunk of granite stands upright like a scholar’s rock, a miniature mountain in the glade. At the spots where paths merge or branch off, the ground looks a miniaturized mountain rockfall, progressing from fist-size rocks to golf-ball stones to pebbles and gravel.

Waldo and Affleck know that time will smudge this orderly arrangement, just as it slowly alters the texture of grief. The young plane tree at the center of the fountain will reach up and spread out, something that day’s victims never had a chance to do. At a distance from that lone, inaccessible tree, grasses and shrubs will huddle and grow denser, forming an increasingly resilient and intertwined community. The power of landscape is that it merges metaphoric and physical solace, control and happenstance. A garden can be lovingly guided but never stops exerting its independence.

The camera can’t quite grasp the memorial’s most ephemeral qualities—the swish, plash, glide, and shimmer, the slowly unfolding drama of the seasons. That elusiveness may protect it from becoming an Instagram destination or another viral image in the howling plague of nastiness that has swirled around the killings and the issues they bring up. It is public yet intimate, an almost hidden pilgrimage spot that can offer neither more nor less than a salve and a moment of serenity.

By night. Photo: David Lloyd
Out of Horror, Beauty: The New Sandy Hook Memorial