Two embracing arms. The wings of an angel. The hull of a slave ship.
Those are among the images conjured up by the central feature of the proposed Emanuel AME Church memorial: two curving, elliptical walls of white marble that enfold those walking onto the church property from Calhoun Street.
This main memorial courtyard would be the more solemn space, located just west of the church building. The church's eastern grounds would become a survivor's garden, with a large open lawn suitable for gatherings, even outdoor weddings.
It would be there, said New York-based architect Michael Arad, that he imagined the space suitable for gatherings and outdoor weddings and children running about.
The Mother Emanuel Nine Memorial design was unveiled Sunday as the capstone to Emanuel's 200th anniversary events. If built, it would dramatically transform the church grounds into a series of elaborately landscaped garden spaces that honor those lost in the 2015 church shooting, the survivors and the church as a whole.
Hundreds packed the pews inside the historic church to be among the first to get a glimpse of Arad's rendering that's been a year in the making.
Arad, who is the architectural mind behind the memorial situated at the site of the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, stood near the pulpit Sunday and made a promise: that the church itself would never be overshadowed.
"The church is at the middle, at the heart of everything that we've done here, and I hope you see that," Arad said. "And we thought: 'What could we do to, figuratively, elevate the church? To consecrate its grounds to suggest that these church grounds have been sanctified through loss."'
Arad guided those present for a Sunday morning service at Emanuel through a slideshow tour of the concept for his memorial. Looking across the sea of congregants, phones and cameras were raised from the church pews as onlookers tried to capture stills and video of the memorial. When Arad received the call from Emanuel about designing the memorial, the "floor fell from underneath me," he said in the presentation video.
One speaker referred to the memorial as "a symbol of resilience." Some worshippers wept silently while others bowed their heads and clasped their hands as they appeared to pray in thanks.
City officials also joined the congregation for the unveiling Sunday.
"This memorial for the Emanuel Nine will equally be as powerful in remembrance for those who were lost (and also honor) those who survived," Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said. The memorial will stand as a testament to remind the world, the mayor added, "that love is stronger than hate."
When work began on the project last year, Arad and others on the memorial committee held several conversations with survivors and relatives of those killed in the 2015 shootings. "This project would not have taken the shape it has if not for the guidance and suggestions and just sharing the thoughts and hopes of so many people in Charleston working on it for over a year," he said ahead of the unveiling.
After some initial schemes were floated, the conversation drifted toward coming up with a master plan for the church grounds.
John Darby of The Beach Co. said the memorial committee looked at several ideas until this landscaping approach rose to the top.
"I don't pretend to be an art critic or an architectural genius, but this one just grabbed everybody in the room," he said of the proposed design.
Other details include:
- An egg-shaped fountain would be placed in the middle of the marble sculptures and would include the names of the nine black parishioners who died in the racially motivated attack. Its interior also contains a cross-shaped indention.
- A wrought iron fence along Calhoun Street, one built to the quality standards set by the late Charleston blacksmith Philip Simmons.
- A small chapel area, dominated by a large cross rising from a black granite water feature, that would include a few benches for meditation and private reflections.
- A tall masonry wall between the memorial and the parking area. A pedestrian path would lead from the parking area into the memorial.
- Some patio-like seating areas on the eastern side of the church, between the survivor's garden and the back of two single homes on Calhoun Street.
- Six benches would surround the survivors garden, and five would include the names of those in the church who survived the 2015 shooting. The sixth would include the name of the church, which also survived.
The spaces would be landscaped along the lines of a fine Charleston garden. The memorial courtyard would include a rough, durable walkway that allude to the rough passage of Africans to the New World and the rough journey faced by Emanuel during its two centuries of history.
The elliptical marble forms, which also would serve as benches, expand out around the fountain but then come together toward the back, where the courtyard transitions into the chapel space. Darby said walking through the space symbolizes the path to forgiveness, and the narrower passage at the rear can be passed by only one person at a time.
"As you come to the end, it's an individual decision to forgive," Darby said.
A new nonprofit has been formed to collect donations. Darby said it will try to raise about $15 million, including approximately $10 million to construct the memorial and another $5 million for programming and a maintenance endowment.
Depending on fundraising and city approvals, Darby said the memorial could be built within the next few years.
Charleston City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie served on the committee and said the design is intended to evoke feelings, "and it will take you on a journey from death to survival. It’s going to be very personal. I think people will interpret it personally. It’s abstract enough for people to do that.”
As the service came to a close and the worshippers rose to their feet to give a standing ovation, sounds of applause carried through the church. There was so much to look forward to.