Sunday, May 10, 2009

West Cemetery Landscape Restoration

Article 18 E: West Cemetery Landscape Restoration (1730-1870 sections): $ 20,000

Although most of us associate historic preservation with buildings, historic landscapes, urban and rural alike, are an increasingly prominent element of modern preservation practice.

West Cemetery is a treasure that earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in part because it is a time capsule or museum of evolving landscape architecture--and the accompanying social attitudes and aesthetics--from the Colonial to the high Victorian eras. The Preservation Plan sets forth a comprehensive system of treatments, embracing the overall topography and viewscapes, Cemetery turf or "floor," circulation paths, herbaceous plants, and trees. Plants are either historical varieties or the closest hardy, disease-resistant modern cultivars.

In moving ahead with these efforts, we have been very fortunate to secure the assistance of the horticultural fraternity of the Stockbridge School at the University of Massachusetts, Alpha Tau Gamma (ATG), which has been engaged in many philanthropic projects, ranging from the creation of a memorial garden for alumnus "Victory Garden" host Jim Crockett to assisting in the planting of the 250th Anniversary daffodils here in Amherst. ATG is eager to embark on a decade-long collaboration that will allow its members to practice their skills and help the town by furnishing a combination of plants and labor.

The first phase of landscape restoration will focus on the sections of the cemetery in which we have undertaken our most substantial previous work: the 1730 Knoll, the adjoining African-American section, and the Town Tomb area. These are the oldest sections of the cemetery as well as those that have been most threatened by a combination of regular maintenance work, visitor traffic, and vandalism.

Early American cemeteries were anything but idyllic: crowded, wild, and sometimes desolate places. The afterlife of the spirit was accorded more importance than the fate of the body, which was simply to return to dust.

William Cullen Bryant wrote (1818)

. . . Naked rows of graves
And melancholy ranks of monuments
Are seen instead, where the coarse grass, between
Shoots up its dull spikes, and in the wind
Hisses, and the neglected bramble nigh,
Offers its berries to the schoolboy's hand

An early cemetery would thus have resembled a meadow, grazed by sheep. The Preservation Plan (pp. 32-33) recommends recreating something of this sort in a more manageable form: rehabilitating the Knoll floor by planting it with low hardy groundcovers, herbs, spring bulbs, and wildflowers, which would need to be mowed only once a year. By reducing the need for lawn care, we create a more sustainable landscape in all regards: reduced costs for Department of Public Works labor and materials, less risk of damage to graves and headstones from mechanical equipment.

We can already begin to imagine how the site will be transformed. The first plants that ATG put in last fall are now in bloom, and a second planting session is scheduled for mid-May.

The adjoining African-American section presents a different challenge. The history of Amherst's Black community is an old and distinguished one, though many graves are unmarked. Among the later graves are those of Henry Jackson, a prominent local teamster and probable conductor on the Underground Railroad, who was involved in the dramatic rescue of Angeline Palmer when her employers attempted to sell her into slavery in 1840.

Nearby are graves of Civil War soldiers, who fought in the famed Massachusetts 54th and other units.

Here, the Plan recommends planting, in place of the rather forlorn and struggling grass, shade-loving groundcovers. In addition, in order to minimize and manage foot traffic in an area containing so many unmarked graves, the Plan recommends a small path. An interpretive marker and bench in this quiet area of the Cemetery will allow visitors to learn about and contemplate the history of the community.

The Town Tomb area, part of the first expansion of the Cemetery, in 1833-69, presents a different feel, in keeping with the then fashionable "rural "or "park" cemetery movement, which sought to turn the former "burying grounds" into attractive places for contemplation of nature, mortality and the local patriotic heritage. Following reconstruction of the Tomb, the Plan (pp. 36-37) calls for a path to control foot traffic, new topsoil, groundcovers to stabilize and soften the landform, shrubs, and intermediate-sized trees to take the place of the mature specimens that will soon decline.


Doesn't this cost a lot? Can't the same thing be accomplished with volunteer work?

To answer in the succinct manner of DPW Chief Guilford Mooring: Yes. And No.

This is a complex, multiyear project, and as such, expensive.

Whenever possible, we seek outside funding, or donations in labor and materials. The costs represented here--based on detailed calculations by Town staff and three outside consulting firms, including the authors of the Plan--are low-end estimates and take into account the contributions of ATG.

To cite but one example: three intermediate-sized trees for the Tomb area cost nearly $ 1875, and plantings in that section alone could cost anywhere from $ 7475 to $ 13,475. Costs for the pathway could range from $ 4480 to $ 24,000, depending on choice of materials.


The new flowers on the 1730 Knoll give a hint of things to come.

One of the most rewarding aspects of our work on the Cemetery in the course of the past decade has been bringing this treasure to the attention of Amherst residents and tourists alike. This has been particularly noticeable in our 250th anniversary year, for example, on the occasion of the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee bus tour and the "Conversations with the Past" reenactments this month. Many was the person who said, "I've lived in Amherst for X number of years, and yet I had never been here," or "I had no idea that there was an African-American community and burial section here."

That is what historic preservation is about.

By bringing back the "Bloom and Bees" of which Emily Dickinson wrote, our projects will call proper attention to the history of the town and its diverse communities and restore not just the historic look and character of the landscape, but also an appropriate dignity and atmosphere.

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