Sunday, November 9, 2008

Landscape Restoration Begins in 1730 West Cemetery

The restoration of Amherst's 1730 West Cemetery, once among the ten most endangered historic resources of the Commonwealth, has been a priority of the Historical Commission for a decade. Our initial efforts have focused on securing the site through installation of new fencing and lighting, and preservation of the most endangered artifacts. The major phase of headstone restoration, described earlier on these pages, began this summer and should be completed by next spring.

What visitors most often come to see--and notice, whether for positive or negative reasons--are, of course the headstones. What they are less aware of is the physical context in which those stones are situated. One of our arguments for the importance of the Cemetery was that it contains some of the only virtually undisturbed Colonial-era topography in the center of town. Other portions of the Cemetery preserve traces of later historical periods, each distinctive in its own right--in a sense, a museum of evolving social values and landscape architecture.

The Commission, in accordance with the West Cemetery Preservation Plan of 1999, and now with the approval of Select Board and Department of Public Works, is therefore embarking upon further restoration efforts, involving landscape and plantings. We are pleased to have as additional collaborators the members of the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School, and its fraternity, Alpha Tau Gamma (ATG), whose members and alumni undertake extensive community service work throughout the Commonwealth. Among their projects have been a garden in memory of alumnus Jim Crockett, who for many years hosted the popular "Victory Garden" show on WGBH Public Television, and arborist and horticultural work for the Amherst History Museum, highway beautification work near the University, and assistance in the Amherst 250th Anniversary bulb planting program.

Our initial efforts will focus on the restoration of the turf floor in the two oldest sections of the Cemetery:

• The 1730 Knoll. At the moment, the area is desolate in the sense of nondescript and neglected rather than in the sense of evoking strong emotions and contemplation. With the new planting scheme in place, the change in scenery would be immediately apparent to anyone entering through the Gaylord Gate, signaling that one was in a special place, separated from the time represented by the streetscape (especially if we can restore proper perimeter plantings, as also called for in the Plan). This would be one of the most striking ways to communicate our efforts to the Town in a way that contributes to the celebration of our 250th anniversary, the more so as the plantings would change with the seasons.

In Colonial days, the Knoll would have been not a neatly mowed lawn, but a meadow-like expanse of varied plants kept in check by grazing sheep. To recreate something of this atmosphere without the assistance of hungry herbivores, the Plan recommends planting of bulbs and sun-loving herbaceous plants, to be kept in check by an annual mowing. In addition to having the merit of historical accuracy, this approach will reduce both costs and the risk of damage to fragile stones from heavy equipment as well as lighten the environmental cost of maintenance.

Restoration of the Knoll began yesterday, as members of the Stockbridge School and ATG planted several hundred grape hyacinth bulbs (Muscari sp.) and a scattering of barrenwort (Epimedium), provided by Hadley Garden Center. In the spring, as these plants come to life, we plan to add herbs and wildflowers, if possible, with the collaboration of plant-propagation classes at the University.

• The African-American section: A flat and shady expanse of lawn to the south of the Knoll. Many graves here were unmarked or no longer have markers, and many of the surviving stones are in poor condition. Introduction of low shade-loving plants, along with creation of a path to limit and direct foot traffic would restore a more dignified and historically appropriate character, and, again, reduce cost of mowing and risk of damage from same. The Plan also proposes a bench or other seating, accompanied by an interpretive marker to explain the history and legacy of Amherst's Black residents--among whom are Civil War soldiers of the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteers. We expect to establish a public-input process to gather suggestions for implementation of these directives.

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