WESTERLY — Walter Pawelkiewicz knows the allure and value of eye-grabbing flourishes at a town’s entryway.
The Connecticut transplant, who now lives in Misquamicut with his wife, Jane, was a central force behind the planning that eventually gave rise to the construction of the “frog bridge” in Willimantic. With that experience in his back pocket, Pawelkiewicz had to smile when he learned of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce’s push for development of an iconic gateway at the bridge that crosses the Pawcatuck River and connects Stonington and Westerly.
“I think the chamber has a great vision to create what would essentially be an entrance to both communities,” Pawelkiewicz said during a recent interview.
The chamber is accepting design submissions from architects, students of architecture, and artists from around the United States. The deadline for submissions is Feb. 14. The proposals will be reviewed by the chamber board, officials from both towns, and property owners in the downtown area, where the gateway will be situated. Input from the public will also be sought. As examples of similar existing gateways the chamber points to the frog bridge, the pine cone archway on Federal Hill in Providence, and a bronze gateway in Thornton, Colo.
Pawelkiewicz, who has been a full-time resident of Westerly for eight years and has owned a house here for 27 years, was first selectman of Windham in the early 1990s when a committee came up with the idea for a bridge with four bronze frogs sitting on hunks of concrete fashioned to look like thread spools. The bridge reflects Windham’s connection to frogs, which dates back to a folk tale from 1758 during the French and Indian War. According to the legend, residents were awakened by shrieking sounds and assumed they were under attack. Instead, they found hundreds of dead frogs that had apparently perished while fighting for water from a dried up mill pond.
Pawelkiewicz helped persuade state officials to pay for the bridge, including its unusual architectural flourishes, and helped steer the concept to reality as first selectman and later as a state representative for Windham.
“I received lots of positive comments like ‘the bridge belongs someplace like Paris’ or ‘it’s beautiful.’ It’s definitely a great source of pride for the town and it’s a tourist attraction,” Pawelkiewicz said.
The chamber had originally hoped to find an acceptable design from chamber members or local architects, but its board could not reach consensus on proposed designs submitted by two local architects — Paul Azzinaro of Westerly and Meg Lyons of Stonington. Their submissions remain in the running, said Lisa Konicki, Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce president.
“We were hoping there would be a concept that clearly resonated with the people on our board...but it was just too divided. There were fans of both,” Konicki said.
When that happened a decision was made to conduct a contest. The chamber expects to receive ideas that range from classic archways to the whimsical. “The thing that is fun and unique and tricky about art is that it’s so subjective...we know we’re venturing into an arena that will subject us to criticism because it’s so subjective,” Konicki said.
According to the chamber’s contest announcement, the goal is “to create a memorable feature at the gateway to our community. It would announce the entrance to our community in a way which reinforces our local identity and generates a sense of place/sense of arrival.” The feature must complement the downtown area and embody the two-town atmosphere.
Designs will be evaluated on attractiveness, creativity, ability to convey the community’s image, and appropriateness for downtown. Practical points such as the potential cost of maintenance and impact on nearby properties will also be considered. Designs must cost no more than $400,000 to $500,000 to implement (design, engineering, permitting, and construction).
The winning design submitted by a registered architect or team that includes a member who is a registered architect will receive a $2,000 prize. Second prize is $1,000. The top design submitted by a high school or college student will receive $500.
Contest details are available at www.oceanchamber.org.