MONCKS CORNER -- When nine Charleston firefighters perished in the 2007 Sofa Super Store fire, the monks here at Mepkin Abbey wanted to plant nine trees in their honor.
They ended up creating the most moving memorial to the tragedy so far.
The design, done by Remark landscape architects, created a quiet yet elegant space in Mepkin's existing meadow, not far from its labyrinth.
At its center lies nine squares of precast concrete surrounding a circle. Each of the squares can seat a few people and was made by Stone Casting, Inc. to reflect the color and texture of Mepkin's existing architecture.
Landscape architect R.J. Kramer says this council ring is inspired by the work of the late Midwest landscape architect Jens Jensen.
"It's just a really peaceful place," Kramer says.
The council ring is surrounded by a path mowed into the broomsedge, along which nine oaks have been planted. Each is accompanied by a small plaque bearing the name of a fallen firefighter.
The memorial evolves throughout the year, as the grass turns from green to gold and back to green, while the overcup oaks lose their leaves each fall and regenerate them each spring.
"We wanted to do something about renewal," Kramer says. "It's a healing space. Sometimes, healing takes years. It happens over time."
The nine, 15-foot-tall oaks were donated by Aukland Nursery in Walterboro, says Father Guerric Heckel. "When the trees get a little larger, it will be quite a nice place to go sit," he says.
The circle in the center of the council ring was modeled on a window in Mepkin's church, and Heckel says its design can be thought of as an altar indicating the sacrifice that these men made for their community.
Its crossing lines match up to north, south, east and west. "Some people like to pray in those various directions," he says.
While many council rings center around a fire pit, Heckel says, "These guys spent their lives fighting fires, so that would be inappropriate."
The council ring can be used as a place for rituals or simply a place for people to sit and reflect and commune with nature.
The project recently won a merit award in a tri-state competition of American Society of Landscape Architects, but it previously received even higher praise.
The firefighters' families met there privately, not long after it was built. In fact, they even helped finish planting the trees.
"What many of them said was it was a quiet place for them to come and remember their loved one," Heckel says. "It wasn't public the way many things about the fire were publicized."
Mepkin's memorial could prove to be a perfect counterpoint to what's planned at the Sofa Super Store site.
There, the city intends to create a memorial garden with individual markers for the fallen firefighters. That space would be flanked on three sides by a new office building that would screen the garden from Savannah Highway traffic and from a neighboring gas station and car lot.
Of course, that site will have always meaning because that's where the tragedy took place, but it will be challenging to create a place offering the same chance for quiet contemplation as can be found at Mepkin Abbey.
"The families do come back," Heckel says. "A lot of times, we don't know they're here."
Robert Behre may be reached at 937-5771 or by fax at 937-5579. His mailing address is 134 Columbus St., Charleston, SC 29403.