Sunday, May 10, 2009

West Cemetery Restoration: Ironwork and Town Tomb

Article 18 C: West Cemetery Ironwork (Cutler & Dickinson Plot fencing, Tomb door): $ 25,000
Article 18 D: West Cemetery Town Tomb Reconstruction: $ 30,000

Historic preservation projects are often complex and multifaceted and can therefore be categorized in a variety of ways, for example, depending on the nature of the asset in question or of the task or technology involved. Whenever possible, we seek to "bundle" together work of a similar technical nature in order to save time and money for the Town. Article 18C therefore bundles all metalwork together. At the same time, work on the Town Tomb appears not only here (by virtue of work on the iron door), but also under its own rubric (18D) for engineering, and in conjunction with overall landscape restoration (18 E).

Article 18C

Cutler and Dickinson Plot Ironwork

Fencing around the graves of members of a given family came into vogue in the early 19th century in conjunction with the new park cemetery movement, which sought to transform the stark "burying grounds" of the Colonial era into idyllic places of commemoration and contemplation. By the 1860s, such boundary markers were on the wane in many more modern cemeteries, seen as either elitist or unnecessary for protection. In Amherst, however, there were no formally acquired and designated plots until around this time: graves were dug as needed. In part for that reason, metal fences or stone coping were added to define the newly fashionable family sections. The plots of the Cutler and Dickinson families contain the only surviving cast iron fencing of this type, and even they are now endangered.

Both the Cutler and Dickinson ironwork have undergone notable deterioration in the decade since the creation of the West Cemetery Preservation Plan.

The Preservation Plan (p. 18) describes the Dickinson fencing as "structurally . . . in sound condition." That was in 1999. It goes on to warn, however (p. 19), "Most of the fence is rusting rapidly from lack of maintenance and the rate of corrosion is accelerating rapidly. If not restored and repainted soon, the fence will begin to deteriorate structurally as well." By 2009, this had come to pass: we can see that the fence is rusted and showing signs of decay, and portions of the horizontal rail are even delaminating, revealing splits through which daylight can readily be seen.

The Cutler Plot fencing is in even worse shape. Already in 1999, the Preservation Plan (p. 19) described it as "in a serious state of disrepair" and "seriously corroded," noting that "Many of the panels along two sides have either fallen down or are missing altogether." Today, only one side is still barely standing, with the others in pieces or missing altogether.

This is the result of the passage of but a decade in a cemetery that is nearly 280 years old.

Town Tomb

Simply put, "tombs" were the sites where communities stored the bodies of the deceased in the winter, when the ground was too frozen to dig. They typically take the form of a stone and/or masonry vault covered by a mound of earth, including (when finances and other conditions permitted) elegant stone facing and an iron door. The Amherst Tomb (1851), with its sober Egyptian Revival aesthetic, is a typical example, and a visual and historic anchor of the West Cemetery.

The Preservation Plan (p. 19) called for replacement of the Tomb door, which is "severely corroded" and compromised by what appear to be modern additions or repairs, including a patently ahistorical and "poorly designed" modern "locking mechanism."

Town Tomb door: detail showing gap and deterioration from rust

Article 18 D

The real defects of the Tomb are, however, structural. The Preservation Plan (pp. 19-20) finds few cracks or signs of leakage but notes a "dislodged fascia stone in the right front" and observes that "the cut stone veneer on the front wall is showing signs of structural distress," moving "away from the stone foundation walls behind," which has "opened up many of the joints," so that "Several of the panels are approaching the point of instability."

The deterioration is readily apparent a decade later. Squirrels live happily in the ample crevices, and the daylight is visible between the foundation and the fascia stones, which appear in imminent danger of collapse.

leaning fascia stones seen from the east

growing gap between fascia stones and foundation structure

the Tomb's only occupant today

A previous appropriation of $ 5000 from CPA funds will fund the prerequisite engineering study. This year's $ 30,000--a figure established by masonry specialists at Dorsey Monuments--will pay for labeling and disassembly of the structure, laying of new foundations, and reassembly of the structure.

Future plans include similar studies of the tombs in the other town cemeteries. The South Amherst tomb (1881) appears to be or less durable structure but in more stable condition.

South Amherst Cemetery Tomb (1881)

South Amherst Tomb (1881) detail

In order to achieve the maximum efficiency coupled with minimum cost and disruption, the engineering and reconstruction work on the Town Tomb will take place in conjunction with the first phase of the West Cemetery landscape restoration (Art. 18 E).

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