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A Garden of Hope and Renewal in a Violent World

Brookside's Reflection Terrace Honors Sniper Victims and Comforts a Shaken City

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page H01

Gardeners are drawn to the beauty of life. One garden this spring attests to the fragility of life.

The Reflection Terrace, dedicated last fall and now seeing its first growing season, is a secluded spot in Brookside Gardens in Wheaton established as a place to remember the 13 people shot, 10 of them mortally, by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo in the Washington area 2 1/2 years ago. The space was not designed to recall the violence that gripped and terrified a city during those anxious October days, but to remember who and what were lost. It does so superbly. Intimate but inviting, sad but uplifting, it is imbued with a beautiful sorrow.

Landscape architect Sunny Scully surveys the memorial she helped create for the 2002 Washington area sniper victims. (Photos Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

The creation of the memorial was the confluence of many forces, planned and not.

The unwitting grand architect was Hans Hanses, a retired landscape architect with the Maryland-National-Capital Park and Planning Commission who originally laid out the 10-acre Japanese garden, called the Gude Garden, whose features include a teahouse surrounded by a lake. Across the water, Hanses positioned a terrace of random pavers, with large stones set vertically and rising as high as six feet. Here, visitors could take in the comforting expanse of the Japanese garden, and in the ensuing decades they came to know it as a place of contemplation.

The snipers' spree in the Washington area began close to Brookside Gardens on the evening of Oct. 2, 2002, when James Martin of Silver Spring was shot in the parking lot of the Shoppers Food Warehouse on nearby Randolph Road. The next day, five more victims were murdered, four in Montgomery County and one in the District. By its end on Oct. 23, the snipers had killed four more people: one each in Prince William, Fairfax and Spotsylvania counties in Virginia, and one more in Montgomery County.

At a candlelight vigil to mark the first anniversary of the killings, Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan announced a plan to build a permanent memorial at Brookside Gardens, setting into motion what would become the Reflection Terrace. Ken Nicholls, then director of the nonprofit Montgomery Parks Foundation, called on a friend, the landscape architect Sunny Scully, of Lewis, Scully and Gionet of Vienna, and asked if she would be interested. Scully donated her services.

Facing a tight schedule and budget, the managers at Brookside rejected ideas of a grove of trees or a structure, not just for cost reasons but to preclude any future memorial creep. Phil Normandy, curator of plants at Brookside, suggested Hanses's terrace, which by then had become nicknamed "Stonehenge" for its collection of large, vertically placed stones.

Working with Normandy, Scully simply edited what was there, turning an entrance landing into a ramp by removing risers to the stone steps, removing some of the existing stones for perennial plantings, establishing seat walls, and taking away some plants to better define beds and adding others to frame views. Poignantly, a weeping Higan cherry tree planted years ago by Normandy stands to the right, now sculptural in its winter nakedness and readying to flower.

Once it was discovered that the existing vertical slabs would take engraving, they were used as memorial stones. On the left side, a text gives a brief history of the violence. On the opposite side, another high stone is inscribed "We remember" and lists, in order of their deaths, James D. Martin, 55, Silver Spring; James L. "Sonny" Buchanan, 39, Rockville; Premkumar A. Walekar, 54, Olney; Sarah Ramos, 34, Silver Spring; Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, Silver Spring; Pascal Charlot, 72, Washington, D.C.; Dean H. Meyers, 53, Gaithersburg; Kenneth H. Bridges, 53, Philadelphia; Linda Franklin, 47, Arlington; and Conrad E. Johnson, 35, of Oxon Hill.

The final versions of the texts were written by Johanna Turner, another friend of Nicholls. Turner, of Northwest Washington, is a consultant and writer who has worked for years in the hospice movement. "I see nature and gardens as gathering places, and places of healing, where you are constantly reminded of renewal and hope," she said.

At the suggestion of the stone mason, John Kinnaird, the final two sentences were moved from one high stone to a low stone wall on the lakeside of the terrace. Standing alone, the inscription faces visitors as they turn to gaze across the water: "Linger here and reflect on those lost to violence. Hope for a more peaceful world; seek a reverence for life among all people."

A new, broad path of pavers leads to the terrace and features a semicircular landing to which a second path will be built to the nearby visitors center.

To the extent that bricks and mortar and plants can mold our feelings as much as the terrain, the terrace is an uncanny embodiment of the events in Washington over a three-week period in October 2002. This was not necessarily Scully's intent, but to this visitor the brick path, in its order and familiarity, reflects the numbing comfort of everyday life. Its threshold yields abruptly to a terrace whose broken pavers and ragged stones, arrayed in countless different axes, lend a feeling of unease and place you firmly in the turmoil of those days. The anxiety is tempered by the engravings, which reach deep. The view across the water and to a lawn of sculpted hills evokes the idea of a passage to a higher plane.

The terrace was dedicated last October with a gathering of the families and friends of the victims. Larry Meyers, brother of Dean Meyers, called it "a serene place where one can come to reflect."

And people have, even in winter. Normandy said the terrace has been widely visited, and he looks forward to its use this year as plants he chose for their fragrance bloom and scent the air. His selections include perfumed perennials such as hostas, hyssops and artemisias, and fragrant viburnums and conifers, including a dwarf deodar cedar called Divinely Blue and a weeping bald cypress named Cascade Falls.

Scully notes that the terrace's proportions are intimate but not so small that someone might feel they are intruding on the space of another already there. And she wonders if a memorial put through the hoops of competitions and juries and committees would be as pure and powerful.

Nicholls agrees. "Sometimes, a soft touch is better than a broad sweep," he said.

What reaction is Scully seeking from visitors? "I hope they'll find a quiet place to stop thinking about the busy details of their life and to contemplate."

And to think of evil? "Hopefully not, that's not what the families want. This is the antithesis of that."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company