Using a heater to warm the epoxy, stone conservator Dean Ruedrich and a helper reassemble a statue at Congressional Cemetery during a massive volunteer effort last fall. It didn`t take long after Congressional Cemetery achieved the dubious distinction of inclusion among the National Trust`s "Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places" in June 1997 for offers of help to begin pouring in.
Hundreds of people--school groups, scout troops, genealogists, lawn-care services--all wanted to do their part to preserve and maintain the historic Washington, D.C., burial ground established in 1807 to be the eternal resting place of members of Congress who died in office.
The cemetery sorely needed help. Hundreds of the roughly 18,000 grave markers were broken, toppled, cracked, corroded. Many were unlikely to survive another winter. But so overgrown and weed-choked were the grounds around them that many were impossible to see, never mind restore.
The Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, a private, nonprofit organization founded in 1976, sponsored clean-up days every Saturday throughout the summer. But it soon became obvious that only a massive coordinated effort would get the 32-acre site under control. That`s where Master Sergeant Thomas Williams, of nearby Andrews Air Force Base, came in. Williams had watched the television special about the "Eleven Most" on the History Channel. He brought his colleague Master Sergeant David Lutzow, also of Andrews Air Force Base, to the first Saturday clean-up to assess the situation and see how they could help. They offered to organize a work force of volunteers from neighboring military installations to mow, trim, and clean up the cemetery.
For two months, Williams and Lutzow worked to assemble and organize equipment and volunteers. When more than one thousand signed up, the clean-up coordinators decided to try to expand the effort from simply mowing and cleaning to addressing stone preservation problems as well. Fred Oakley, of Hadley, Mass., coordinates volunteer cemetery conservation workshops for the Association for Gravestone Studies. He and David Via, a stone conservator from Round Hill, Va., offered their services for the two-day event. Doug Mitchell, a stone cutter with Southern Memorials in Maryland, donated two days of his work to coordinate the resetting of modern granite stones and offered to loan the heavy equipment needed to reset large toppled obelisks. This conservation crew came in two days before the clean-up to prepare the site for the other volunteers. They moved and consolidated the fragments of broken headstones to clear the grounds for mowing and tagged damaged stones for resetting and conservation.
As a small army of volunteer workers began to assemble on the morning of September 26th, Oakley, Via, and Mitchell divided up the group. A "stone crew" of 40 volunteers, working in small groups, would go before the mowers, carefully returning broken stones to their original locations, digging out leaning tablet stones and resetting them, lifting, resetting, and recaulking granite stones that had slipped from their bases. By day`s end, Congressional Cemetery was spotlessly mowed and cleaned and 230 stones had been reset.
The cemetery clean-up enabled another conservator to donate his services to restore a few major monuments and to follow up on the work of the volunteers. Dean Ruedrich of Bunn, N.C., spent a week with a small crew reconstructing the gathered pieces of box tombs, rebuilding broken markers with dowels and epoxy, and molding lead caps for spalling sandstone tablets. Stones that had been unlikely to survive another winter were now restored and ready to face the elements.
Congressional Cemetery board members are now planning to raise the funds needed for a conservation assessment, the next step toward a thorough restoration. Training volunteers to reset and clean grave markers will be a crucial part of that effort. It takes volunteers working with preservation professionals to make progress saving a large, neglected site.
Thanks to the work of generous volunteers and the contributions of the preservation community, there is hope that Congressional Cemetery will no longer be considered "endangered."
Publication Date: March/April 1998