It is a shaded place of solemn reflection, lined with palm trees and tombstones and covered in steel and glass. Here, sitting on a stone bench and sheltered from the elements, you can block out the whole world for just a few minutes of respite.
Patriot Plaza, a 2,800-seat amphitheater at the Sarasota National Cemetery, was built to be an oasis in a sea of sorrow. It was intended to honor veterans and celebrate their lives and was funded by philanthropy whose main ingredient was art.
The Patterson Foundation, a charity established in 1997, funded Patriot Plaza with a budget of $12 million plus $2 million for art, and it was later donated and donated to the National Cemetery Authority. Linda Gould, a retired US Army colonel and public consultant for the Patterson Foundation, says Patriot Plaza is the first of its kind.
“What makes this unique is that for the first time in the United States, the federal government has allowed a charitable foundation to use its money to pay for the beautification of a national cemetery,” Gould says. “Other cemeteries have improvements, but this was the first. And now it’s happening in Alabama and Georgia.”
Today, the American flag is seen everywhere in the square, and is usually flown at half mast.
Since Sarasota National Cemetery opened in 2009, 25,000 veterans have been buried, and an average of 15 funerals are held here every weekday. The cemetery has 16 employees to help manage and maintain the 295-acre facility, and about 30 volunteers to help interact with the community.
The square also has a team of guides who take school groups around the facility and educate them about the art surrounding it. One guide, Ed Gates, says he enjoys the opportunity to talk to the youth about the importance of ministry. During a recent visit to Patriot Plaza, Gates spoke of his encounter with a couple of high school students.
He taught them some basic drill commands and special salutations for Marines and Army soldiers, and he wasn’t sure if they really learned it or not.
“At the end of the presentation, they go to their bus and thank you for the tour and all that,” Gates says. “These two girls, leaving, said: “No, you will do it!” I thought, “What are they up to?”
“Then they all turned in unison and said ‘Mr Gates’ and to me a big ‘Ohhhh!’
Safe at home
Patriot Plaza, built by Hoyt Architects, did not open to the public until 2014.
The east entrance to the square greets visitors with a pair of sculptures by Ann Hirsch, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design.
This installation called “The House” occupies space on two curved walls that guide you into the square, both made of cast bronze and designed to resemble a bird’s nest.
Here, on the northern wall, two bald eagles sit on curved branches. Odin, the older eagle, shelters and protects the younger eagle, which may be about to leave the nest.
There is another branch nest on the south wall, but there are no birds in it. The south wall is decorated with a quote from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Both walls have offshoots from the native New England artist used in the sculpture, and Gates explains how she created it.
“This artistic process is over 300 years old; this is known as the lost wax process,” says Gates. “Imagine a very large hard wax tube. The artist basically carves the work of art out of wax. All images and shapes that you see are made from this wax. There is a team of people who work with the artist – when the artist finishes his work – they essentially come with molten metal that they spray onto the wax.
“Before the wax begins to melt and destroy the work of art, the molten metal is immediately cooled with a misty stream of cold water. This is a very old process that is still in use today.”
The same process was used to create the imposing sculptures at the western entrance to the square.
Tufts University graduate Pablo Eduardo sculpted two giant eagles to guard Patriot Plaza.
Majestic birds of prey seven feet high and 12 feet wide are called guardian eagles.
The sculptures are oriented sideways, which means that one keen eye is directed towards the square, while the other is looking at the graves.
On the wall are the seals of five branches of the armed forces – the army, navy, marines, air force and coast guard.
Gould says the display will never change, no matter what happens in the future.
“One of the questions we get from visitors quite often is that there is now a sixth military force with space command; will another seal be added? The answer is no,” she says.
“Artwork and images date back to the Civil War on the outer ring, as well as World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Art across the board is static as of 2012. Everything that happened after 2012, we do not update. or changing.”
From night to day, here and away
As you sit in the amphitheater, your eyes are immediately drawn to the stone podium and the 80-foot flagpole. But if you look down to the bottom of the scene, running from left to right, you’ll see a nice colored mosaic.
Titled “Night to Day, Here and Away,” this 50-foot piece is meant to remind visitors that they share the same heaven with their loved ones, who may be serving halfway around the world. Artist Ellen Driscoll, professor at Bard University, wove both the ever-changing skyline and symbolic emblems representing awards and medals.
You can find ribbons including the Medal of Honor, Purple Heart, Silver Star and others in the mosaic, as well as laurel leaves and stars; Blue for military personnel and gold for those who died in service.
The mosaic holds special significance for Gates and his wife Nancy, who are the parents of the Golden Star. Their son, the late Russell J. Gates, was a naval aviator on combat missions during the Gulf War and died in October 2000.
Gates, while explaining some of the elements, eloquently describes the artist’s intent.
“If you notice that everything starts over here on the left, look at the sky. It’s dark, he says. “As you move towards the center, it becomes lighter. This is daylight. When you get to the right end of the artwork, it’s dark again.
“We are here, we are a military family. We may have a son, daughter, sister or brother, uncle or aunt serving their country abroad. We get up in the morning, we have freedom. people defend freedom. They may have had a bad day. Perhaps they had to fight in battle. Day after day. Here and away.”
Driscoll’s artwork also balances out the entire area. Her mosaic, which began as a 15-foot watercolor painting, has also grown into a pair of 20-foot-tall spiers. The twists repeat the theme, but this time they stretch the story upwards.
“Remember,” says Gates, “this artist started with a 15-foot watercolor. Each of these small pieces of glass has been inlaid by hand. Needless to say, it took some time.”
Next to the podium there is another feature that attracts a lot of attention.
This is a five-pointed star, called the Berghaus star projection, which signifies the worldwide coverage of the US military. There is a star on the map for Sarasota, and there is another one in Washington, D.C., where the commander-in-chief lives.
On the north sidewalk to the square, there is an art monument that tells of the many ways in which the common people served throughout American history.
The exposition consists of a series of 22 marble pedestals, each of which contains a photograph and a brief description of the service.
The 49 photographs placed on the plinths deal with military themes such as conflict, technology, funeral rituals and celebrations.
Interestingly, if you stand between the two pedestals, you can see the experience of servicing different eras. For example, one plinth depicts a soldier with an ancient prosthesis, while the other depicts its modern version.
This exhibit was designed by artist Larry Kirkland, as is the Testimony exhibit, which runs along the walkway.
Each of these eight-foot-six-inch-high marble slabs—for a total of 16—contains a service-related word and personal testimony from members of the military or military family. The slabs are all unfinished; in some cases they have a jagged edge, or perhaps they look like they’ve been through a fight. It’s all design, Gates says.
“We live in an unfinished world. We still have work to do to become perfect,” says Gates. “Each of the tablets has one section that looks like it has been torn apart. He’s not perfect. We are imperfect. This is the sympathy that the artist conveys.”
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