Sunday, May 10, 2009

West Cemetery Restoration: An Overview

The case of West Cemetery epitomizes the challenges and successes of Amherst’s historic preservation policy, and moreover demonstrates why good work takes time and costs good money: careful inventorying and assessment, thorough preparation of project specifications, hiring of specialized professionals, coordination with Town departments for requests for proposals and bidding as well as in-house work.

This quiet Dust was Gentlemen and Ladies
And Lads and Girls --
Was laughter and ability and Sighing
And Frocks and Curls

This Passive Place a Summer's nimble mansion
Where Bloom and Bees
Exists an Oriental Circuit
Then cease, like these --

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864
(used as motto of West Cemetery Preservation Plan)

Although the 1730 Cemetery contains what is perhaps the only piece of virtually untouched topography from the Colonial period and is the final resting place of some of Amherst’s most important citizens, it had sadly deteriorated by the end of the twentieth century. Commercial encroachment and other inappropriate aesthetic intrusions, decaying fences, vandalism of graves, and general lack of upkeep to the lawn and paths landed it a spot on the Commonwealth’s notorious list of Ten Most Endangered historic resources in 1998. That dubious honor prompted the Town to nominate the site, successfully, as it turned out, a place on the rather more desirable National Register of Historic Places. Both designations spoke to the importance of the site, and the Historical Commission hired consultants to produce a comprehensive Preservation Plan (adopted 1999), involving the input of landscape architects, engineers, gravestone conservators, and metals conservators.

The Plan assessed the nature and condition of historic resources in the Cemetery, and recommended a systematic series of “treatments,” which have furnished the basis of our policies in the past decade.

• The Commission began with an effort to control access and maintain security, a complex process requiring coordination with the Department of Public Works. 2002-3 saw the erection of a new metal perimeter fence and restoration of the two gates (“Gaylord,” behind Pleasant Street, and “Burnham,” on Triangle Street).

• Former hemlock edging, which had fallen victim to disease, could not be restored because the excavations threatened to disturb graves. In order to produce a more dignified backdrop along the northwestern edge of the property, abutting the Carriage Shops, the Commission—at the suggestion of then-staff liaison Lynda Faye—initiated a competition that led to the creation of Amherst Community History Mural (2003-5) by artist David Fichter. The project restored dignity to an area formerly notorious for its graffiti and antisocial activities: it has also become one of our most popular attractions, and formed a particularly fitting backdrop to the recent “Conversations with the Past” reenactments held this month in conjunction with our 250th Anniversary.

Lighting for both the Mural and the Cemetery as a whole, funded by CPAC beginning in 2003, is about to be installed, now that the Department of Public Works has completed its streetscape and entrance improvements (2005-9).

• Once the Cemetery access was secured and a more dignified atmosphere began to assert itself, we were able to begin the restoration of funerary monuments. Actual work on restoration of over 250 of the most threatened headstones in the oldest portion of the Cemetery, the so-called 1730 Knoll, began in earnest last summer, and to date, we have expended $ 92,600 of the $ 150,000 allotted for the project, which is scheduled to conclude this summer.

Welcome signs and interpretive entrance markers have now been designed (Commission member Michael Hanke generously donated his professional services for this purpose) and will soon be put out to bid.

As this first phase of headstone restoration (2006-9) nears completion, we now begin to address the larger and equally important task of landscape restoration. The first phase of work will likewise focus on the oldest portions of the Cemetery. Once this goal is achieved, we will move to address other portions of the site.

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