A City-sponsored competition seeks proposals to design a memorial to the old Cooper River bridges

To be fair, it’s probably not the ugliest landmark in the city. There must be massive public edifices around town that are even more unsightly than the poured concrete bridge support currently hulking over East Bay Street at the new Ravenel Bridge on-ramp. But an informal survey around the City Paper office has failed to identify anything at all, at least locally, that looks more out of place and has less obvious aesthetic or artistic merit. On the other hand, the same thing could be said of Sharon Stone these days, and she’s still making movies, so who are we to judge?

In any event, all that may be about to change for the better. (Not Sharon Stone; that condition is sadly permanent.) The Charleston Civic Design Center and the City of Charleston are seeking proposals from creative types in the community who think they could help turn that old remnant of the Pearman Bridge, and a nearby concrete foundation of the former Grace Bridge, into a dual memorial that evokes and commemorates the spirit of the now dismantled bridges. The competition is open through May 22, after which all submitted proposals will be on display for public viewing at the Design Center during the Spoleto Festival and through the end of June.

Civic Design Center director Michael Maher says the notion of a memorial has been in play since before demolition began on the Grace and Silas Pearman bridges last summer. The City even went so far as to set aside some of the steel from the Grace Bridge, allowing for the possibility that there might be a call for it in a commemorative marker at some point.

“The idea,” Maher says, “is to give people interest in the idea of creating something at the end of East Bay Street that somehow evokes the spirit of the bridge which is now gone.”

Apparently nothing’s off the table. Maher observes that since the competition isn’t for an actual commission (there’s no money for any construction at the moment), designers are free to propose anything they dream up, no matter how impossible or unfeasible constructing it might be in reality.

“We’re thinking of it as an ideas competition,” he says. “It’s not limited to someone proposing anything that could actually be created. It could be a sculpture or an intervention of any kind. It might be something that’s more evanescent, more temporal, maybe even more of a performance than a permanent marker. The point of an ideas competition is simply to come up with an idea. Anything goes.”

Maher hit upon the his inspiration for the competition during a bout of research, when he came across a book on former Charleston mayor John Patrick Grace, for whom the bridge was named. One quote in particular had special resonance for Maher:

“Far be it from me to freeze the genial current of the timid souls who now seem satisfied only with memories … if it suits them to mummify Charleston and to make of our city only a museum, let them revel in it. But there should be room enough also for others … why not awaken in this mercenary reverence for old things also the enterprise which made these old things? Instead of selling the ruins of what they built, why not build something ourselves? I love the past, but I am living in the present and feel that it is the future to which we must look — even, thank heaven, as our fathers did.”

That quote dates from around 1912 — well before many of the Charleston structures we now consider historic, and therefore irreplaceable, were ever built.

“I found the quote interesting because it does put forth the kind of provocation we find ourselves facing today,” Maher muses. “Grace himself questioned Charleston’s continuing reverence of old things, way back then.”

Even though there are no plans at present to make any winning proposal an honest-to-God memorial, Maher notes that great ideas have a way of coalescing into reality.

“The hope is that we can create some energy and some synergy with this, and maybe some great idea will come forward and we can start fundraising and use that energy to get something actually built.”

Yet even if that support fails to emerge, Maher views the competition and the resulting conversations worthwhile ends in their own right.

“Part of our purpose is to open up a lot more dialogue about how people in the arts in communities and cities can help define how we mark events like this. How and why we might choose to commemorate and mark such a passage. How do we build something for ourselves and our future outside of the remnants of what people built before us? Those contradictions always make for more interesting conversations. And hopefully, in this case, an interesting idea for a memorial.”

Registration for the competition is open to anyone. There will be two categories for judging: an open classification and a student classification that’s reserved for entrants under the age of 18. The jurors, who are yet to be announced, will award cash prizes of $800 for first place, $400 for second place, and $200 for third place, with additional prizes for the student competition. A complete list of submission guidelines and deadlines for the Grace Memorial Competition can be found, with a little searching, at www.ci.charleston.sc.us.

For now, the Pearman remnant looks like it’s there to stay — that is, unless some twisted, creative mind proposes implementing the short-lived but potentially spectacular memorial Maher himself suggested to me, knowing my feelings about it: “It’s your chance to propose a performance art piece — say, a large mound of explosives right beneath it.”

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