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Sycamore Hill concepts unveiled to the public for input

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Audreinee Harvey-Tyson, left, and Helen Horne discuss design options of the Sycamore Hill memorial on Aug. 11, 2017 at Greenville City Hall. (Molly Mathis/THe Daily Reflector)

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By Seth Thomas Gulledge
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, August 12, 2017

City staff and design firms presented two concepts for the Sycamore Hill memorial on Friday night — one inspired by music and the former layout of the historic church and the other focused on a sense of sanctuary.

About 50 residents gathered Friday in City Hall for a look at the newest concepts for the project, which aims to memorialize the Sycamore Hill community and church that once stood on the land now known as the Town Common in downtown Greenville. The residents in attendance, and others in the community, are asked to provide feedback so that the design teams can move forward with a more detailed concept.

The project is divided between multiple firms. The lead firm, Rhodeside & Harwell, is designing the landscape, while Perkins + Will is designing the architecture and The East Group is working on civil engineering. The conceptual designs presented Friday were largely architectural in nature, as more comprehensive plans are not possible until a concept is agreed upon.

The two designs are based on feedback already received from the community, said Michael Stevenson, a designer with Perkins + Will. Specifically, design centered on common themes voiced by citizens: pride in community, spirituality, music, structure and historical prominence.

The first concept, referred to as “Walls,” was inspired by the idea of music and the former layout of the church.

Stevenson said the design team found an old floorplan of the church and tried to create a design reminiscent of that plan. The design mimics the entryway of the church, the central community area where pews once stood and the altar and choir area near the back. Interspersed throughout this design would be walls of varying height and width, on which the story of Sycamore Hill would be presented.

The second concept, referred to as “Gateway,” got its inspiration from the sense of sanctuary the church once offered.

Stevenson said the team started this design by looking at the original shape of the church, then created an overhead structure in that likeness. This concept would be more closed off than the other, in hopes of creating a sense of security.

Both designs feature a tower.

The “Walls” concept has a tower in the former location of the original bell tower. The modern recreation, which could feature stained glass, is meant to evoke the sense spirituality and prominence the towers once played, Stevenson said.

The tower in the “Gateway” concept would be located on the corner and serve as an extension of the structure.

Both designs also incorporate 22 walls, benches or elements in homage to the 22 original founders of the church, as well as a terrace viewing area that faces the river.

Community members in attendance were positive in their feedback, with most indicating they enjoyed parts of each concept.

Zena Howard, managing director of the North Carolina branch of Perkins + Will, said the reason behind presenting both concepts was to get a sense of which features the community likes. She said the finished concept likely will incorporate components of each design.

Though neither concept showed any specific material, which Howard said was purposeful since the design team primarily wants feedback on the overall concept of structure before moving forward, the team also is welcoming feedback on various materials that could be used for the project, including glass, wood or stone.

Stevenson said special attention was taken to give each concept a sense of spirituality and awe, much like one would find in a church. He said that the designers were trying to find many subtle ways to set the tone of the space, such as adding a step-up from the adjacent sidewalks.

The designers also are considering ways to incorporate musical elements and a water feature, Howard said, but details such as these would be seen in finalized concepts.

Audience members suggested the team consider a musical element similar to that of the steps outside of Joyner Library on East Carolina University’s campus, which have sound effects or music activated by the motion of passing students. Another resident said the team should find a way to incorporate the original bell from the church.

The design teams expect to take the feedback, make changes and provide a final concept this fall. Potential plans also will be presented to the City Council in the coming months. Original cost estimates hovered around $2 million — $1.6 million for construction, $260,000 for general contractor and bond fees and a 5 percent contingency fund of $100,000 — though the estimate is expected to change as the design is altered.

Lemarco Morrison, a Recreation and Parks Department planner who is leading the city’s end of the project, said that he is happy with the feedback so far, particularly how the community is accepting of changing concepts as the project progresses.

Morrison lauded the design team for listening to feedback from early meetings, including from residents who were adamant that a replica of the old church tower be created, and for mixing those ideas with their own expertise for the proposed concepts. Because of Sycamore Hill’s past history and its nature in the community, Morrison said public involvement in the process is vital.

The church was first founded as African Baptist Church in 1867, making it one of the city’s oldest churches. Its name was changed to Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church in the 1880s. In 1917, an updated large brick church was built at the corner of First and Greene streets, but the congregation was forced to move in 1968 a result of a renewal project.

The original church was burned by an arsonist in 1969 and its remains were sold the the city’s Redevelopment Commission. The surrounding community was purchased by the community shortly after, and homes were either destroyed, sold and relocated.

“It’s important that we recognized there was a need to do some healing,” Morrison said. “Through healing and involvement, people will feel better about the park as a whole.”

Contact Seth Gulledge at sgulledge@reflector.com or 329-9579.

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