Memorializing Loss, Honoring Tradition Texas A&M Bonfire Memorial   |   College Station, Texas   |   4,300 SF

Situated on the polo fields of Texas A & M University, the Bonfire Memorial was created to memorialize twelve students who were killed when the structure being built for the university’s annual Bonfire collapsed in 1999. Located on the site where the collapse occurred, the memorial also honors those injured in the accident, while commemorating the ninety years of the Bonfire’s history and the school spirit embodied in the longstanding Bonfire tradition.

Celebration Turns To Tragedy
The events of November 18, 1999, were devastating to the community of Texas A & M University, College Station.  Since 1908, Aggie students had expressed team spirit aimed at championing defeat over rival University of Texas at Austin by building and igniting a Bonfire every year around Thanksgiving.  In 1999, the event turned into a tragedy as fifty-eight students were building the colossal structure for the Bonfire from an estimated five thousand logs. At 2:42 a.m., the fifty-nine-foot log structure began to collapse, killing twelve of the students working on it and injuring another twenty-seven.
The University Responds
The university responded to the tragedy by ending the annual event (a variation of it currently occurs off-campus) and holding an international blind design competition for a memorial. In making what would become the winning proposal, Overland Partners sought to balance the memorializing of loss  with recognition of the Bonfire as one of the university’s most cherished traditions. They also proposed locating the memorial on the exact spot where the accident took place.
The Memorial itself is a wonderful tribute to the tradition that our daughter loved so much and to our children’s memories. We are grateful for the care and attention to detail that you put into its design and construction. We also are grateful to Overland Partners for the compassionate, kind way we were always treated throughout the past seven years.
Larry & Neva Hand Parents of a victim
Collaboration, Sensitivity, Compassion

When Overland Partners was awarded the commission in 2002, they had only two years to complete the project, as it was scheduled to be dedicated in 2004, on the fifth anniversary of the collapse. With limited time and a nominal budget for such projects, the team had to be highly creative and resourceful.   Additionally, very little time had passed since the tragedy and thus tremendous sensitivity and compassion would be necessary in building relationships of trust with the families of the deceased.

In addressing logistical issues and financial matters, Overland forged strong collaborations with the university, the bronze artists, and the design team. Working closely with university members, the team was able to locate a quarry that could deliver the stone on time, with the university picking up the excessive costs of the stone. Since the area is known for its heavy rains, the university and the architects worked together to design the lawn much like a golf course, implementing an irrigation system that allows water to move through it without flooding.

The most challenging part of the project was working with families who had just lost a child. To engage them fully in the process, the Overland team held town hall meetings in three Texas locations in order to share their vision for the memorial and to invite families of the deceased to influence the outcome.  As Principal in Charge Bob Shemwell recalls, “The portraits were the most difficult part.  There was a lot of back and forth with the families.” Although Overland Partners did the final editing, family members contributed much of the raw data that was necessary to develop the portraits, including photos, memories, and writings. The families were also shown full-scale mock-ups of the portals as the project took shape.

Penn State School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture Card Session
Penn State School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture Sketch

Making It Meaningful

Seeking to create a monument in which every element has symbolic meaning, the Overland team plotted out the memorial into distinct sections arranged like a procession, with each area having its own meaning and purpose. Visitors to the memorial begin at Tradition Plaza, an arrival area where they are greeted by a stone wall engraved with the epic poem, “The Last Corps Trip,” which was traditionally recited before the lighting of each year’s Bonfire. The poem describes St. Peter greeting Aggies at Heaven’s gate and is uncannily prophetic of the tragedy.

The second section, History Walk, is a long walkway that functions as a timeline made up of eighty-nine blocks of granite, with a notch cut into each stone at a point that is 11/12ths of its width, to represent November, the 11th month of the year and the time of the event.  At nighttime, the notches are illuminated to represent the lighting of the Bonfire.  For historical accuracy, blocks representing 1955, 1982, and 1996 include plaques memorializing students killed on Bonfire-related accidents in those years. To mark the year 1963, a low black slab with the year inscribed on it was substituted because President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of that year, and the Bonfire stack was respectfully disassembled log by log.

University of Texas at Dallas Davidson-Gundy Alumni Center Card Session
University of Texas at Dallas Davidson-Gundy Alumni Center Card Session
University of Texas at Dallas Davidson-Gundy Alumni Center Sketch

At the end of the timeline is the Spirit Ring, composed of twenty-seven granite blocks, each representing one of the injured survivors, and connected by twelve sixteen-foot-tall portals, each dedicated to a student who died and positioned in alignment with the student’s home town. 170 feet in diameter, the dimension of the fence that was traditionally constructed around the Bonfire, the ring symbolizes school spirit by referring to class rings, which are an intrinsic part of the Aggie culture, and to the crowds of students who gathered around the fence each year to watch the Bonfire. To pay tribute to the injured, each granite block houses a bronze plaque, but these plaques were left blank to honor the larger group of everyone injured during the Bonfire’s ninety-year history.

For the interior of the portals, the Overland team chose bronze instead of granite, since the material has a warmer, softer touch to it and is thus more appropriate for remembering the human presence of those being memorialized. With the aid of bronze artists, the interiors of the portals were embellished with medallions engraved with portraits of each of the deceased, accompanied by their signatures and their own thoughts or remembrances of them written by others.

The final element in the memorial is a black granite marker. Located on the exact place of the Bonfire stack’s Centerpole, it is engraved with the date and time that the pole collapsed (11-18-1999 2:42 a.m.), in the innermost area accessible only through one of the portals.

A PLACE TO REFLECT AND REMEMBER
On November 18, 2004, the Bonfire Memorial opened on schedule and in pouring rain. Today, the site is frequently visited by individuals who leave flowers or mementos at the Centerpole marker. According to Shemwell, “People now have candlelight vigils at 2 a.m. in the fog,” as they reflect upon loss, school spirit, and tradition.
Awards
  • TSA Honor Award for Design 2006
  • AIA San Antonio Honor Award for Design 2005
  • International Excellence in Masonry MCAA 2005
  • Texas Masonry Council Golden Trowel Award 2005
Publications
  • Guy Nordensen, Reading Structures: 39 Projects and Built Works, Lars Müller Publishers, 2016
  • Texas Monthly, ”Aggie Muster,” November 2009
  • Umran Magazine, “Bonfire Memorial,” March 2005
  • The Dallas Morning News, “A&M Chooses Memorial Design,” March 2002

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