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Public art bench in Merritt Park dedicated to Chapel Hill's Merritt family

<p>The Merritt Art Bench Dedication on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. Photo courtesy of Town of Chapel Hill.&nbsp;</p>
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The Merritt Art Bench Dedication on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. Photo courtesy of Town of Chapel Hill. 

With its 200th anniversary, the Town of Chapel Hill is hoping to celebrate its history while inviting residents to be a part of its growth and future. A public art bench that was installed in Merritt’s Pasture in honor of the renowned Chapel Hill family on Friday is aiming to do exactly that.

Merritt’s Pasture is a park formerly owned by the Merritt family and was sold to the town for public use. When the pasture was originally donated to the Town, it was in an area that people weren't able to access, meaning most residents were not able to enjoy its beauty. In her podcast "Re/Collecting Chapel Hill," creator Molly Luby talked about the work done to make the pasture more accessible to the general population. 

In the episode, Bill Webster, planning and development manager for Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation, talked about how special the pasture was to former Chapel Hill Town Council member Joe Herzenberg and how they worked together to make it more accessible for citizens.

“We took citizens, we took community members on hikes, and at that time it was difficult — really, really difficult — to go through those areas, and right now, we have trails and boardwalks, and it was not easy," Webster said.

Luby, who also serves as special programs coordinator at the Chapel Hill Public Library, said the Merritt family got the idea to install a bench in the pasture from a bench on the Bolin Creek Trail that is dedicated to Herzenberg. This bench was used as the inspiration for the Merritt family bench.

Luby said Herzenberg was an integral part of opening Merritt’s Pasture up to the public and creating public parks and greenways in Chapel Hill. Herzenberg was the first openly gay person elected to public office in the South when he was elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council. Luby said Herzenberg was beloved by many people and colloquially known as “The Mayor of Franklin Street.”  

"I also love the fact that the Merritt family saw the Joe Herzenberg bench on the Bolin Creek Trail, and they loved it, and they wanted to see the artist create a bench honoring family members in that pasture," she said. "I feel like there is the spirit of Joe Herzenberg there as well.”

Luby said the bench is meant to symbolize memories the Merritt family has about the pasture.

“They were remembering walking to Merritt’s pasture, sitting by the pond, and it was that sort of memory and nostalgia that is wrapped up in that bench," she said. "There’s a bell there that is bringing to mind the one-room schoolhouse that they went to, so it is a lot of memory of the family and their childhood.”

Susan Brown, executive director for Town community arts and culture and the Chapel Hill Public Library, said the installation of the bench is a part of the larger historical celebration of the Town’s 200th anniversary. 

“The Chapel Hill 1819/2019 project is currently going on, and this is connected to that," she said. "Part of that project is celebrating the people and places that have made Chapel Hill what it is, and certainly the Merritt family and Merritt’s Pasture meet that criteria.”

Brown said the Merritt family donated the bench in honor of the matriarch and patriarch of their family. Artist Michael Waller created the bench and also created the Joe Herzenberg memorial bench.

Luby said the benches are one way to make the Town's public spaces more accessible.

“I love that we have artwork that anyone can enjoy, not just people who have the privilege to go into a museum or gallery," she said. "Benches are an invitation.”


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