Patriot Plaza nears completion at Sarasota National Cemetery

Patriot Plaza nears completion at Sarasota National Cemetery

jajones1@bradenton.comJune 23, 2014 

SARASOTA -- Workers are putting finishing touches on Patriot Plaza, a $12 million covered amphitheater filled with commissioned artwork and carefully selected photographs honoring the service and sacrifice of veterans.

The plaza, with its translucent light-green glass cover, provides an inspiring focal point to Sarasota National Cemetery.

Designed by architect Gary Hoyt and funded by the Patterson Foundation, the 2,800-seat facility is intended to honor veterans, inspire patriotism, and embrace freedom.

The plaza and cemetery complement each other to honor veterans, said Sandy Beckley, a military initiative consultant who served from 2007-10 as first director of Sarasota National Cemetery.

"It's the last honor we can give them," Beckley said.

Included in the Patterson grant was $2 million for artwork and an endowment of $1 million to provide maintenance for the facility, ensuring that it will not cost taxpayers anything.

"There is nothing formal like this at other national cemeteries," said Beckley, who had a nearly 40-year career serving vets with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Patterson Foundation asked Hoyt to design the Plaza with particular attention paid to shade and seating.

The 20,800-square-foot cover is a composite of 792 glass panels. Each one-inch panel sandwiches a fiber material between two panes of glass to cut down the bright sun and screen out ultraviolet rays.

Depending on conditions during the day, the cover may seem to change from green to a milky color.

"Some of the neighbors say they enjoy watching it change color," Beckley said.

Hoyt designed the plaza to fit on 1.83 acres set aside by the cemetery for an assembly area.

Twenty-two white marble plinths curve along a sidewalk on the north side of the plaza, each containing photographs from the Civil War to the modern era.

Facing plinths seem to talk to each other. One pair of plinths contains photographs of amputees, one with modern prosthetics from the Iraq War period, and another shows a World War I amputee.

"War is the same," Beckley said, regardless of era.

Kenny Irby, who founded Poynter Institute's photojournalism program in 1995, and artist Larry Kirkland selected the photos for "Witness to Mission" along the plaza's north pedestrian path.

"We went through 8,000 images," said Irby, who also pastors a church in Palmetto. "It was a two-year labor of love for the entire committee. I have been moved multiple times by the concept."

Lee Kichen, a Manatee County resident and chairman of the cemetery advisory committee, calls the plaza an "incredible enhancement."

"It separates this cemetery from other cemeteries in the system. This is unique," Kichen said.

Any organization or group that wants to use the plaza should contact the cemetery director and complete an application. Uses are limited to anything that honors veterans, is open to the public, and for which no admission is charged.

A dedication is set for Saturday. All tickets were quickly snapped up after they were made available.

James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.

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