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Saratoga firm balances emotion, aesthetics as it designs veterans’ cemeteries

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Saratoga firm balances emotion, aesthetics as it designs veterans’ cemeteries

To fully appreciate one of our national cemeteries is to not just see it, but feel it — even if you
Saratoga firm balances emotion, aesthetics as it designs veterans’ cemeteries
The Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery in the town of Saratoga, photographed Tuesday, May 10, 2016.
Photographer: John Cropley

To fully appreciate one of our national cemeteries is to not just see it, but feel it — even if you never knew any of the veterans buried there.

These places exude a sense of honor and reverence, and are carefully designed to maximize that atmosphere with aesthetic and emotional appeal. Creating a new veterans’ cemetery is a long and detailed process, but one local company has developed an expertise in tying all the components together to create something with a sense of place and meaning.

When Saratoga Springs design and planning firm The LA Group started design work for its first veterans’ cemetery 21 years ago — the Gerald B.H.

Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery, a short drive from the city — it was embarking on what would become a specialty. It has since worked on more than 75 state and federal veterans’ cemetery projects nationwide, including nine new national cemeteries, 12 state or tribal cemeteries and 25 expansions of existing cemeteries.

The LA Group — whose staff includes landscape architects, civil engineers, planners and environmental scientists — now has a team working full-time solely on these cemetery projects. They recently completed a major expansion of a New Jersey cemetery, designed the Omaha National Cemetery currently under construction, and are now designing new cemeteries near Buffalo and Colorado Springs.

This specialization began as a business strategy but also grew from an appreciation of the deeper meaning of the work being done, recalls Joseph Sporko, president and managing principal of the firm.

Back when the Saratoga National Cemetery in the conceptual stage, LA Group was mainly designing parks and private-sector sites, he said. The nearby cemetery seemed like a good way to get into the market for federal projects, so the firm sought and won a contract to create the master plan for its construction.

REWARDING PROJECT

“Going through this experience, me personally, I got a lot out of it,” Sporko said. “I felt that it was a way to give back to our veterans. I always have a spot in my heart for veterans.”

He was more involved in the design of that first cemetery than in recent projects, but he still tries to set aside his administrative role enough that he can be part of veterans’ cemetery design.

The Scranton, Pennsylvania, native’s father served in World War II, and all of his uncles were military men, as well. When the Saratoga National Cemetery was completed, Sporko had a marker placed there for the uncle who was shot down off the Italian coast and never seen again.

Three years after it was dedicated, Saratoga National Cemetery was formally renamed for a tireless advocate for its creation and for veterans in general — Gerald B.H. Solomon, a congressman and Marine veteran who now lies buried there.

It was one of the first of a wave of new national cemeteries being built by the National Cemetery Administration of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — 20 since 1997, with three more in planning stages now.

The goal, an NCA spokeswoman said, is to ensure that as many veterans as possible have the option of burial in a national cemetery within 75 miles of their home.

A new national cemetery can take four years and $30 million to create. There is a huge amount of work involved in planning and design before the first excavator bites into the ground — the site plans alone for the new Western New York National Cemetery in Pembroke will likely total more than 500 oversized pages.

When it is awarded a contract to create the master plan, The LA Group’s role is not only to draw up the blueprint but to perform or oversee all of the research and testing that the plan will be based on. That’s everything from assessing wildlife and vegetation to testing soil and ground water to considering prevailing wind patterns and sunlight angles. Traffic access, activities on nearby land, location of utility lines and anything of historic or cultural significance also are studied.

The LA Group then oversees initial construction phases, tests the work being done and the materials being used, issues progress reports, and generally monitors the work being done on behalf of the VA, even though the VA typically has its own supervisor on site.

It will take on partners for aspects of the project it does not itself specialize in, such as building architecture, and seek out veteran-owned businesses so that it complies with VA requirements — some LA Group employees are veterans, but none of the principals are.

COMMON ELEMENTS

While each cemetery is different, the design requirements all come from the VA, so the same elements go into each new veterans’ cemetery, whether state or federal. These include an administrative/public information center, shelters for committal services, an honor guard building, an assembly area and at least one columbarium.

But the details of those common elements will be determined by the culture of the region around the cemetery, Sporko said, noting as an example the cemeteries The LA Group has worked on in Nebraska and Florida.

“The way they look will vary tremendously by where the cemetery is located,” he said. “So we look to the local history, the culture, the design vernacular.” Initial designs for the main building at the new cemetery in Pembroke, for example, reflect the American Craftsman architecture common in nearby Buffalo.

The veterans’ cemetery designer’s key task is to unify the design elements with their surroundings and magnify the sense of the place and its meaning.

“You’re designing something that is going to be there forever,” Sporko said. “You’re designing something also that is going to be a national shrine. These aren’t just regular cemeteries, they’re really treated like national shrines. Given that, we say we’re place makers. We create places for people.”

He continued:

“When we do one of these facilities, what’s totally in our minds the whole time is that: You’re creating a special place, and everything from the overall look to all the detail has to say ‘honor, dignity, permanence.’ So we think a lot about that as we’re going through the design process.”

VISUAL IMPACT

Saratoga National Cemetery previously was a cornfield like any other in upstate New York. Design elements such as locally quarried stone and rows of trees similar to nearby orchards tie the cemetery to the region, and vehicle pathways are carefully oriented to take in sweeping views of the fields of grave markers and the hills beyond.

The new Pikes Peak National Cemetery outside Colorado Springs will use a similar visual strategy to influence emotion, Sporko said. Visitors will come in on an entrance boulevard driving away from the landmark mountain that gives the cemetery its name, then curve around toward the information center.

“You round the corner, all of the sudden now, you’re looking at the U.S. flag ... and Pikes Peak is right in the background,” he said. “So it’s this dynamic view that we’ve created by guiding you, the visitor, to look that way. We’re making you look that way. And you’ll have this sense of awe when you see that view.

“It’s about evoking emotion, evoking feeling. We try to do that in the design,” he said.

It’s an effect that has to be achieved subtly — designers can’t plop a bunch of monuments or grand buildings in the cemetery to create the sense of awe. And it must be balanced carefully, because they’re still trying to create that sense of honor, dignity and permanence, even in those more subtle structures.

“The buildings aren’t what people are there for,” Sporko said. “They’re there because their loved one is buried there. So it’s really paying homage to them. There’s no big huge monuments out there.”

A CONSECRATED PLACE

Saratoga National Cemetery was dedicated in 1999. A decade later, it was expanded; The LA Group sought and won the contract to do that work, as well. The expansion project is long since complete and signs of construction gone; no further work is now planned, though space exists for expansion when that becomes necessary.

It is a beautiful and moving place to walk through — the meticulous work of the designer has shaped it well.

On a recent afternoon, in a season stunted by chilly weather, the leaves are still small and the growth still tentative, and one can still sense the annual renewal of spring while walking past those for whom time has stopped. It is a nice metaphor for their service to the country — for whether these men and women saw the horror of war or drew only a quiet assignment stateside, they all helped preserve the country and its freedoms, in ways great and small.

It’s not just the many rows of grave markers standing in a quiet, manicured field that give this place its impact, it’s knowing what those buried here did when they were young and alive, and could have been doing something more comfortable or less dangerous or more lucrative out of uniform.

Because of their age, many of the veterans have the words “World War II” or “Korea” etched on their stones, but there are more each year that say “Vietnam” and a few now that read “Persian Gulf.”

The words Abraham Lincoln spoke in 1863 as he dedicated the Soldiers National Cemetery on a cleaned-up Pennsylvania battlefield are displayed on a small monument at Saratoga National Cemetery. They still hold their meaning generations later, here and at veterans’ cemeteries everywhere.

The short speech, soon immortally famous as The Gettysburg Address, reads in part:

“We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

This consecration is what we feel more than see as we walk through a national cemetery.

Reach business editor John Cropley at 395-3104, [email protected] or @cropjohn on Twitter.

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