Saturday, July 19, 2008

Preservation Success Story: Cemetery Restoration Proceeds

Amherst’s West Cemetery, the original “burying ground,” dating from 1730—even before the community was recognized as an independent colonial parish (we mark the 250th anniversary in 2009)—is one of our major preservation success stories.

With the arrival of summer weather, two of the most important and visible steps in the preservation process are underway. Streetscape renovation by the Department of Public Works has now reached the northern end of the downtown, thus permitting completion of the access walk from Pleasant Street and installation of lighting for the nearby commemorative mural. At the same time, long-awaited restoration of broken and deteriorating headstones is finally beginning.

Located within the bounds of the ancient “West Highway” (1703) and now bordered by modern roads as well as retail and residential properties, the cemetery was named to the list of the “Ten Most Endangered” Massachusetts historic resources. The cemetery holds some of the rare virtually unchanged colonial landscape in the town center, and the occupants present a cross-section of Amherst society: famed and forgotten, scholars and soldiers, factory-owners and farmers. Among the graves that regularly attract visitors are those of poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86) and her family; Revolutionary War officer and politician Ebeneezer Mattoon (1755-1843); Henry Jackson (1817-1902), conductor on the Underground Railroad, and his son, Sanford Jackson (1831-63), who, along with some two dozen other African-American residents, fought in the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry (of “Glory” fame); William Smith Clark (1826-86), pioneering agronomist and founder of both the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts) and Sapporo University in Hokkaido; and jazz musician Robert “Gil” Roberts (1896-2002), who performed with Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker as well as the New Black Eagle Jazz Band.

The cemetery was threatened by a combination of natural deterioration, neglect, and vandalism. The endangered designation helped the Historical Commission to call attention to and raise resources for urgent restoration tasks.

In 1999, the Historical Commission commissioned a survey and systematic Preservation Plan for the Cemetery. In 2000, physical work began with restoration of perimeter fencing and installation of metal gates at the two entrances. In both cases, funds came from the Department of Conservation Historic Landscape Preservation Initiative.

Although better control of access to the Cemetery eliminated some of the abuse resulting from vandalism, a different problem was posed by the narrow space between the west fence and an adjoining retail structure, which became a site of what have been called inappropriate juvenile nocturnal activities, including perennial defacing of the wall with graffiti. Staff Liaison to the Historical Commission Lynda Faye came up with the bold idea of commissioning a mural for the wall, in order both to solve the graffiti problem and to create a more dignified backdrop for the cemetery.

Over the space of several years, the Commission negotiated with the owners of the building for an easement, conducted a public input process to select an artist and design, and raised private contributions for the project. From 2004-5, Cambridge muralist David Fichter, with help from local volunteers, created the mural, which depicts not only those buried in the cemetery, but also other residents, from poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) to 19th-century Irish women mill workers and twentieth-century farmers. (A brochure available at the cemetery identifies the figures depicted.) Initially controversial in some quarters, the mural has now become our most popular work of public art, and a new icon of the town.

The wall of the cemetery mural,
next to the defaced wall of an adjoining building

The remaining work on restoration of the cemetery, proper, is being financed through appropriations by the Town from Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds. (The CPA—about which more later on this blog—was one of the wisest acts of Massachusetts legislation [2000]: a progressive measure that channels funds from property taxes toward improvement of local quality of life through support of affordable housing, historic preservation, and open space and recreation.)

This spring, the Town contracted with Monument Conservation Collaborative LLC for the conservation and restoration of some 240 headstones.

The headstones are of course the most visible markers of the graves whose presence constitutes the essence of the site. Their condition often prompts expressions of concern from local residents and descendants of the deceased. It has at times been difficult to explain that our efforts first had to go into studying and securing the site, and that funds can be appropriated, contracts awarded, and work carried only after a rather cumbersome bureaucratic process. It is therefore most gratifying to be able to announce that the delicate restoration work has at last begun, and that ten years after earning its place on the ignoble list, this historic resource is truly no longer endangered.
Yet e'en these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

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