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A Couple's Memorial Journey

Published May 16th, 2013, Updated September 11th, 2021

Written by Robert Maestas


This is the true story of our twenty year journey that led us into what would become the largest memorial design competition in the world.  A journey that would end in heartbreak and test our faith in humanity, what is right and wrong and give credit where credit is due. 


Our story begins on the morning of September 11th, 2001.  As my wife and I witnessed the horrific events unfold on television that morning we were unaware our lives would be changed forever.  The days following the events of September 11, 2001 I could not sleep and was consumed by the tragedy.  One evening I woke my wife and said, "I am going to design a memorial in remembrance to all those that perished so tragically on February 26, 1993 and September 11th, 2001."

During the following months I would come home from work and continue working on a rough draft for my concept for the World Trade Center Ground Zero Memorial.  With the support of my loving wife, family, friends and colleagues the draft was ready to first be presented to some of the influential people in the Denver community.  In early November 2001 my wife and I set up a meeting with District 9 City Councilwoman Deborah Ortega to present the concept.  The meeting went very well and the next thing we knew it was being arranged for us to fly to New York City and meet with City Councilman Guillermo Linares to present the concept.  It was early December 2001 when the meeting took place in New York City, only three months after the attacks.

After the meeting with Mr. Linares the expectations were high as he was 100% behind our memorial concept.  Mr. Linares asked us to wait in his office for a moment while he made a phone call.  Upon completion of the phone call we were told, "Let's go now."  In what seemed like an instant we were now somewhere in Manhattan being rushed into a restaurant for a meeting.  The meeting was with the famous designer Oscar De La Renta.  I was to present my memorial concept to Mr. De La Renta while having lunch.  I was very uncomfortable with this as I felt it was not the time or place to show a memorial concept that would take into account so many lives lost on 09/11 and it did not seem right.  The victims and families deserved much more respect.  Eventually the memorial concept presentation was presented, and the conversation went back and forth between Mr. De La Renta and myself.  Mr. De La Renta had different views as to what a memorial concept should entail.  During the meeting Mr. De La Renta did state to my wife, "Your husband has tenacity, never let him lose that quality."  The lunch ended and we were driven back to Councilman Linares' office.  Upon arriving back at the office Mr. Linares had his assistant schedule a cab to pick us up and take us back to our hotel.  My wife and I arranged to fly back to Denver the next day.  After returning to Denver I kept my focus on my memorial design.  We continued receiving official letters of support for the memorial concept and kept abreast on a daily basis via the internet on what was going on in New York.

It was early January 2002 when we heard there would be a Grass Roots meeting in SoHo, Manhattan to discuss memorial plans for the 16 acre site at Ground Zero.  The program was being organized by Monica Iken, founder of September's Mission Foundation.  Other family members of the victims of the 09/11/01 tragedy and the New York press would be at the meeting as well.  My wife and I felt we had to fly back to New York to attend this meeting.  On one very emotional evening in January 2002, we found ourselves in a SoHo loft with family members of the tragedy and other designers that had concepts on what a memorial design for Ground Zero should look like.  These were the first "unofficial" presentations for a memorial, and it was the first time that the families and the press of New York would see the draft design concepts from various artists/designers for a Ground Zero Memorial.  In a wave of emotion, standing in front of a very emotional and grieving audience I began my presentation on my memorial concept.  The concept had been shown to various influential Denverites and influential people in New York in November and December but never to the grieving family members that had lost loved ones in the September 11th, 2001 attacks.

In a nutshell, my "Centerpiece for the Memorial" was to be based on 12x12" photograph and inscription/remembrance tiles that would remember every individual that perished in the attacks of February 26, 1993 and September 11th, 2001.  These "Faces on a Wall" and "Inscription Story Remembrance" tiles would be placed permanently into the walls of the building that would be constructed at Ground Zero.  The design would reflect the large scale of the tragedies with photographs and stories written by loved ones.  After the presentation, Ms. Iken and other family members came up to me and gave their support on the concept and thanked my wife and I for what we had presented to them that evening.  One family member said, "I am astounded that in such a short period of time after the attacks a couple from Denver, Colorado could put so much compassion and love into a concept that would remember every individual as a person and not just a name."  I was granted permission from Ms. Iken and other families to continue using the photographs and inscriptions of their loved ones in my concept for whenever the "official" memorial design competition was announced.  After the completion of the meetings my wife and I left emotionally and mentally drained.  The next day they were on a plane back to Denver.

Fast forward to April 2003. The official announcement for the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition was announced by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) out of New York.  This was to become the largest memorial competition in the world.  My wife and I had waited for this moment for a year and a half.  We had presented my memorial concept unofficially over the past year and a half and now the time had come to make it official.  After reading the submission guidelines I had to refine and update the concept to fit onto a 30x40" presentation board that all entrants were required to use. My emotions again surfaced as it was at this moment, I knew the reason I would rework, revise and submit my official concept onto a 30x40" presentation board.  It was for one reason and one reason only!  It was dedicated for the victims and the families that lost their loved ones on February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001.  I never lost sight of that meeting in the SoHo loft that evening back in January 2002.  After refinement the final statement would read "Centerpiece for the Memorial, Constructed by the People for the People, Remembering Everyone, Forgetting No One!"

Once complete it was time to submit the signed documents, fees and official concept on the presentation board.  The one thing we struggled with was me signing the LMDC's documents as we knew we would be giving away our emotions, compassion and love of the project we had been working on for the past 17 months.  Signing the documents would give LMDC full ownership to all submissions of concepts for the memorial.  LMDC's guidelines and rules basically state that the artists' and designers' visions they put into their designs for a memorial are to be given away.

The Terms and Conditions of 9-3 state: "Ownership of the Submissions.  All submissions in Stage l and Stage ll shall become the sole property of LMDC.  LMDC shall own the entire copyright in all submissions selected, in whole or in part, for use in the final memorial design.  Competitors whose submissions are not selected, in whole or in part, for use in the memorial shall grant to LMDC a worldwide, perpetual, gratis license to reproduce and/or use the submission in any way, in any medium now known or hereafter devised, for any purpose, including but not limited to publication, exhibition and archive of the competition results.  Use of any submissions will be properly credited."  Keep in mind the last sentence, it could serve as the most important piece of information in this whole story.  Our concept was officially submitted.  In the end there would be 13,683 registrations received and of those 5,201 official submissions from 63 nations and 49 US States.  We now realized that we were one of the 5,201 official entrants from around the world that submitted a memorial concept honoring all those lost on February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001. It was a defining moment in our lives.

On January 6th, 2004 the winning design for the Ground Zero Memorial was announced by the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition Jury.  The winning design was "Reflecting Absence" designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker.  When we heard the news we knew our journey for designing the Ground Zero Memorial was complete, we also knew the emotional high the two architects must have been feeling at that point in time.  We realized the dedication it would take by these individuals to make a drawing on a 30x40" presentation board come full circle and become the memorial for the people of the world to come and pay their respects to all those lost on February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001.

As time and years passed we kept abreast on the status of the Ground Zero Memorial.  Our design was not selected but we always felt we were part of the process.  Reflecting Absence was shaping up to be a monumental memorial, it was scheduled to open to the public on September 12th, 2011, ten years and one day after the September 11th, 2001 attacks.  We were aware that out of the sixteen acres being redeveloped at Ground Zero, eight of those acres would be set aside for the memorial and a museum to be built on the site. 

It is now August 2011 and I was no longer employed with the Department of Agriculture working as the Wildlife Services Senior Western Regional  Computer Specialist; I chose to pursue a career as an artist a few years back.  My wife was still employed with the Federal Government.  We never forgot the families we met and the sorrow we witnessed on those faces back in 2002.  We will always remember our contribution to the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition.  I had decided to remember the upcoming ten year anniversary of 09/11/01 by creating an exhibit entitled, "A Tribute To 09/11/01."  The exhibit was displayed at the CHAC Gallery, 774 Santa Fe Drive, Denver, CO from August 31, through October 1, 2011.  It is a statement to our ten year journey.  My artistic tribute was my way of presenting an opportunity for the people of Denver and greater Colorado to recognize, reflect and continue to show their support for the remembrance of 09/11/01.  I was exhibiting my official World Trade Center Memorial Concept to the public along with various art pieces and poems I created specifically for the exhibit.

On September 2, 2011, a little over a week away from the ten year anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 attacks and the opening of my art exhibit.  It is a very surreal evening as the people come to view the exhibit.  Emotions run high and the feedback we receive seems as heartfelt from the public as it did almost ten years ago when we presented our draft memorial concept in that loft in New York City.  Comments from viewers from the exhibit ranged from, "I cannot believe this concept for the World Trade Center Memorial was not selected..." to "...We can build this memorial here in Denver, it's not too late."  I thanked the people for their kind words and said, "All I would like to see now is for this exhibit to be moved to a permanent location for the world to see.  It deserves to be placed somewhere permanently for the people and not taken down and placed in a closet."  The people agreed!  As the evening was coming to an end, I took one last look at the exhibit wall and reflected on the ten year journey my wife and I had made.  It was coming to an end and a sense of sadness came creeping into my inner creative being.  I knew my wife was feeling the same emotions.

As we were driving home, we talked about the opening and the emotional comments and feedback we received from the people. I said, "You know our design may have not been chosen by the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition Jury but the exhibit this evening was just as gratifying.  It has always been about presenting a memorial and exhibit for the people to honor all those that perished on February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001."  As my wife got ready for bed I turned on the television to see the latest news.  In that instant the actor, Robert DeNiro came on the screen announcing how to purchase tickets for the opening of the Ground Zero Memorial to the public on September 12th, 2011.  A web site address was provided, and I wrote it down.  After the commercial was over, I went to the computer and typed in the address that DeNiro provided and hit "Enter" on the keyboard.  I was taken to the official site for the September 11th, 2001 Memorial, a site I had visited in the past.  As I began browsing, I noticed a tab on the top of the page that read Museum.  I selected the tab and a drop down menu appeared with a picture that read Memorial Exhibition.  I clicked on the selection.  In an instant it's as if my visions, dreams, plans, emotions, dedication, presentations, meetings and sleepless nights had come back to haunt me.  I called out to my wife, "Patricia come here, come here!"  As Patricia entered the room, she looked over my shoulder at the screen.  We could not believe what we were viewing.  Our ten year journey to create a memorial for Ground Zero had not ended, in fact it may have just begun.

We stood quiet and in disbelief for a moment as we took in what we were seeing.  My concept of victims faces and inscriptions on a wall that we had talked about and presented for ten years had been brought to life.  I felt like I had just been punched in the gut, this could not be happening, how could this be happening!  The next click on the screen was a button that read Play Video.  I clicked and as if time stood still, we found ourselves immersed in a short visual animation video of the memorial design I created and had shown to the families and press in SoHo, Manhattan ten years earlier.  The camera panned through a corridor of the victims faces lit up on a wall.  I instantly remembered my presentation of the faces on glow tiles back in that New York City loft in January 2002.  The more we clicked the more information was presented, we were stunned and at a loss for words.  My original concept proposed in 2001 was now being emulated and shown on the September 11th, 2001 Memorial Website in 2011.  The design was being proposed and would eventually be permanently displayed as "The Wall of Faces" at the 09/11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.

Today, September 11th, 2021 marks twenty years since the September 11th, 2001 attack on our country.  Please take a few minutes to remember all those that perished and their families.  If you ever have a chance to visit the 09/11 Memorial and Museum in New York know that when you view "The Wall of Faces and listen to the Stories" about those that perished on February 26, 1993 and September 11th, 2001 you will know the real story behind the memorial, the artist and how the original concept for the "Wall of Faces and Stories" memorial was developed back in 2001.  As of this updated writing on September 11, 2021  we have never been involved, acknowledged or given proper credit for the use of my unofficial and official submitted design plans that I showed twenty years ago and is now on permanent display at the 09/11 Memorial & Museum.  A true travesty if there ever was one!

For those that may be interested in this story and publishing the real truth behind the 09/11 Memorial let it be known I have all the supporting documents, certificates, letters of support and images with official dates and signatures.  Feel free to email me anytime at

Thank you,

Robert & Patricia Maestas


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