This presentation is part of the International Cemetery Preservation Summit, April 8-10, 2014 Niagara Falls, NY.
In Small Things Remembered: The William Peters Reeves Grave Memorial at Kenyon College by Dennis Montagna
Dennis: Thanks. Thanks, Jason. David, I think that with all that gnawing, we’ve done some studies and determined that that’s why squirrels don’t get into the best colleges.
Dennis: Okay, now … Monty Python used to say, now for something completely different. This is a very small cemetery at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and that’s going to be the topic of our next talk. More than 35 years ago, anthropologist James Deetz published his slim, but influential, book In Small Things Forgotten, the Archeology of Early American Life. In it, he argued that artifacts left behind by early Anglo-Americans possessed the power to tell us how they thought, lived, and behaved. Colonial-era gravestones had long been a genre of small things that interested Deetz, but these early grave memorials are not the only ones that have been overlooked. They are not the only ones with stories to tell.
Gravestone production today is a very different animal than it was two centuries ago. This view of the Rock of Ages plant in Barre, Vermont, shows that it has become highly-mechanized factory work. Clearly-described work orders travel along conveyor-belt systems attached to in-process stones, while automated blasting booths render lettering and ornament cut through stencils. Once set in place, these monuments hold great interest for the families that commission them, but not so much for others.
Exceptions to the rule are memorials that show either a continuity or a revival of iconography like the modern version of the gates ajar, a popular 19th-century image of reunion in the afterlife. It is seen on the Rock of Ages production line on the left. On the right is an earlier version in the Blevins family cemetery in eastern Tennessee. The 20th and 21st-century stones that typically attract our attention are the ones that modern cutting, inscribing, and painting technologies have allowed producers to customize with the trappings of a decedent’s profession, interests, or visage, but stones that are small and possess little or no ornamentation are the ones that we walk right on by. They are truly small things forgotten.
One of these is the headstone of William Peters Reeves in the Kenyon College Cemetery in Gambier, Ohio. It carries his name, his birth and death dates, a Latin epitaph, non nobis solum sed toti mundo nati, not for ourselves only are we born but for all the world, an appropriate parting sentiment for a career educator. While it may not be apparent from this photo, Reeves was a much beloved English professor at Kenyon for 35 years. Called Pete by his students, his interests were wide-ranging. In the parlance of his day, he was a live wire. He played the violin, organized and coached the school’s rifle club, and directed and produced plays.
He married school librarian, Florence Beckwith, in 1910, and they had one child, a daughter named Hannah. After his retirement in 1935, the college named and furnished a room at the campus library in his honor. Reeves died 10 years later, and his wife and daughter began the laborious process that eventually led to the simple monument that marks his grave. We know that the process was laborious because the monument’s production records survived in the files of the Presbrey-Leland Company, the New York City-based designers of cemetery monuments and mausolea.
Formed in 1920 from the merger of two monument studios, the Leland Company and Presbrey Coykendall, Presbrey-Leland became a leader in monument design between the wars. While most of their production centered in
the East, their designs can be found nationwide. On the high end are large, costly mausolea at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, where the company opened a showroom soon after their merger. They also offered small monuments, like the one they produced for William Reeves’ Ohio gravesite in 1950. This one clocked in at under $300, about the cost of a low-priced TV combination that year.
To look at it, one would never guess that this modest grave memorial resulted from two design development campaigns that produced more than 100 pages of correspondence that stretched over nearly three years’ time. What does this one project file, selected at random, contain? It contains all of the correspondence that went back and forth between company president, Clifton Presbrey, and his client, Florence Reeves. We have Florence’s original letters and the very fragile carbon-copy responses that Presbrey-Leland retained for their records.
We also have the internal company communication that moved back and forth between Presbrey and I.G. Smith, the sales agent based in Westerly, Rhode Island. We have the monument contract that the clients signed and the work order that laid out the project’s scope, materials, and methods for the fabrication shop that would cut and finish the stone. Presbrey-Leland secured pricing from three different stone suppliers, and that correspondence is preserved, as well. Two of the stone companies, the Columbia Granite Company and Joseph Coduri, were based in Westerly, Rhode Island. The third, the Harris Granite Company in Salisbury, North Carolina, would eventually receive the contract to cut, inscribe, and ship the monument to the cemetery in Kenyon.
Complementing the paper trail already described are the office copies of the drawings that depict the design development of the Reeves’ memorial. They include preparatory sketches and an eye-wash drawing in color to help seduce the client into committing to a design. Present, as well, are signed approval drawings and a record of the many small modifications made during this simple monument’s long period of gestation.
After her husband’s death in 1945, Florence Reeves stayed in the home that they had shared in Gambier. She would remain there until her own death in 1970. She first contacted Presbrey-Leland in early 1946 and requested copies of two promotional publications, “Commemoration” and a small book exhibiting the firm’s more modestly-priced designs. It was word-of-mouth advertisement that first brought Mrs. Reeves to Presbrey-Leland. In 1941, the firm had designed a very handsome monument and a flat marker for the grave of family friend, Joseph Denney, at Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus. That project file survives, as well.
Denney was a professor and dean at Ohio State, and he helped to create speech as an academic discipline. His memorial is about five feet tall and designed in Art Moderne style with step-backs at the corners. Above the family name is a stylized representation of the tree of life. Today, the memorial is engulfed by cemetery plantings run amok, but despite being heavily soiled with green algae and other biota, the quality of the Presbrey-Leland-designed monument, its carved ornament, and its lettering still shine through.
But Mrs. Reeves seems to have shopped around among monument companies before returning to Presbrey-Leland in 1949, equipped with a clear preference for a small, unassuming monument. She wrote to Clifton Presbrey, “I’ve wanted a simple headstone such as one sees in the old colonial churchyards,” and she observed that the memorial that they had created for the Denneys in Columbus was much bigger than the one that she had in mind.
Clifton Presbrey, whose business correspondence is marked by its graciousness, wrote to her in late March, 1949. He wrote, “I understand that you were contemplating a very modest memorial and realize that you are not seeking any ostentatious display, but whatever is done should be truly artistic, appropriate, and in excellent taste. We find that some of the less ornate and more chaste designs that we have created have frequently been most admired, and we are always as much interested in the small monument as in the larger one. There is no reason why such a memorial should cost more than pieces that lack beauty and good proportions.”
A few months later, Mrs. Reeves came to New York and met with Presbrey in his office on 5th Avenue. She considered various monument designs, settling on a colonial-revival head and foot stone ensemble. Presbrey then turned the client over to Isaac Smith, their agent in Westerly, Rhode Island. His job was to meet with Mrs. Reeves, work through the details of the design, and emerge with a signed contract for the work.
I wondered if there was a connection between Isaac Smith and the Smith Granite Company that was once based in Westerly. I called Linda Chaffee, archivist of the former company’s records at the Babcock-Smith house. She told me that Isaac Smith had been her grandfather, but she didn’t think he’d worked for Presbrey-Leland. I sent her a scan of a Presbrey-Leland memo that had Isaac’s name and address stamped on the top left corner. She checked with her 88-year-old father, who said that Smith indeed left the granite industry to work for Pratt & Whitney, building engines during World War II. He then became a salesman and designer for Presbrey-Leland in the
late 1940s. Linda told me that she was surprised that no one in the family had ever mentioned this to her before.
Smith prepared this hand-colored drawing for Mrs. Reeves’ approval. His stylized monogram, IGS, appears at the bottom right-hand corner, but the highly-idiosyncratic lettering style, especially that used for the numbers, was developed in the New York studio, based upon source material Mrs. Reeves had supplied. That source was the January, 1927, issue of the National Geographic Magazine with its depiction of a 17th-century floor monument in Jamaica. Not included in the Presbrey-Leland file, this image comes from a colleague’s collection of ancient National Geographics. It’s a Joe Edgett, for any of you who may know Joe. This pairing confirms the close correlation between the Reeves design and its source, especially in the renderings of the ones, fives, the three, and the six.
Internal company correspondence suggests that Mrs. Reeves had already acquired a reputation as a somewhat high-maintenance client. Isaac Smith kept Presbrey posted on his progress as he prepared the drawings in late July. He wrote, “I expect to submit this to her in person in two or three days. It did not seem advisable to try to please her during these very hot days, as she is difficult enough during normal weather.” Isaac Smith met with Reeves and her daughter at her daughter’s home in Essex, Connecticut, in mid-August, 1949.
His drawing and its accompanying notations relay the client’s critique and preserve the substance of the discussion they had that day. Smith detailed the things that Mrs. Reeves had liked about the design, the N with the short center point, Rs with attenuated tails, and juxtaposed small and oversized numbers. His edits show desired changes that would widen the word Reeves, lower both the dates and the Latin quotation, and broaden the spacing within the dates and the quotation. In keeping for her fondness for colonial gravestones, she wanted the letters on her husband’s monument to be “open, quaint, and casual, not mechanical.”
As he had predicted to Presbrey, Smith succeeded in getting Florence to sign a contract, but the celebration didn’t last very long. Over the next several months, the monument’s design continued to change in countless small ways at the client’s insistence. As discussions about the stone’s production progressed, the specified stone type changed from Branford, Connecticut’s Stony Creek granite to Balfour pink, a stone quarried in central North Carolina.
Presbrey had told Mrs. Reeves that he himself planned to use Stony Creek granite for his own grave memorial, a Celtic cross, because he liked its rustic qualities, but because Reeves decided that she wanted the lettering to be V-cut by hand instead of sandblasted, Presbrey wrote to her that the finer-grained southern granite would be better able to handle carving, especially the subtle italicized lettering planned for the Latin inscription.
She apologized for the late changes, but gracious again to a fault,
Clifton Presbrey assured her, “You need not fear that you will cause us trouble, for we are just as desirous of having a memorial be all that it can be desired as you can possibly be. Our reputation has been, in quite a measure, built upon the painstaking attention to every detail in design and execution.”
By the end of September of 1949, Mrs. Reeves had signed off on the final drawing, and Presbrey-Leland’s work order made its way to Salisbury, North Carolina, where the stones were to be cut, finished, and inscribed, but included on the order form was a warning about Mrs. Reeves. You can see it on the right. “We caution you to have the lettering very carefully done and the detail closely followed, as our client will be very particular in her inspection of the completed work.”
Even after the order was placed, Reeves continued to make changes in the carved numerals. It seems that Reeves’ Midwestern upbringing got the best of her, and she retreated from the far more exotic numerals that she had initially chosen and opted for something much more restrained. She wrote to Presbrey, “I wish I could have these brainstorms all at the same time, and I’m sure your patience must be stretched to the breaking point.” Then she wrote, “I like the larger eight and four. I like the three smaller at the top. The six and the nine seem a little less fussy, more straightforward.”
At this point, he instructed the quarry to hold off on the lettering until he could be sure that his client’s brainstorms had dissipated, but other matters were afoot and Mrs. Reeves never signed off on the design adjustments Presbrey-Leland had made at her request. After several months of silence, Mrs. Reeves met with Presbrey in New York and canceled the monument order.
Her daughter, Hannah, who had planned to pay for the stone, was now in the midst of a divorce and would no longer be bankrolling the project, so Clifton Presbrey was now on the hook for the head and foot stones that had already been cut and still waiting to be inscribed in North Carolina. He paid for them and then shipped them to Presbrey-Leland’s showroom at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx in the hopes of selling them to some future client with a similar yen for a colonial-style stone.
As February, 1950, rolled around, Clifton Presbrey may have gained a grave monument to peddle, but he didn’t lose his client. Mrs. Reeves remained, contracting instead for a stone that would cost about half the $500 she would have spent for the first monument. This one would be the tilted flat marker that would eventually be placed at Reeves’ gravesite. I say eventually because it, too, went through many design iterations. By this time, Presbrey is barely able to deal with Mrs. Reeves in a civil way, reminding her more than once that she left him holding the bag on the first stone “that you previously ordered and which we have on hand, finished, ready for lettering.”
Mostly containing himself in letters to the client, he’s able to speak more freely with his brethren in the monument business. He sent a drawing of the much-scaled-back memorial to John Ramsay, president of the Harris Granite, for pricing, lamenting, “This is what that contract has finally boiled down to.”
To Ike Smith, his employee in Westerly, he was even more candid, and he wrote, “This is a very disappointing result after the immense amount of time our draftsmen and I have spent on this woman.” Yeah, this woman, it’s great. “Spent on this woman here in New York, and you have devoted to her in Connecticut. We have drawn and re-drawn the inscription with unimportant little changes in the shape of the letters to satisfy her whims. Mrs. Reeves seems to be almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but if she will continue her chain-smoking of cigarettes, perhaps she will be robust and husky before long.”
So, with the design fully back in play, the movement of drawings and letters between New York and Ohio began again. The new approval of the drawings for a small stone carrying only the name and dates came back unsigned along with a sketch from Mrs. Reeves that would re-capture the Latin inscription by reducing the lettering size. She wrote, “I feel most apologetic about all of this, as though I hadn’t known my own mind. I guess it is true that new ideas come to you as you study on something.”
Presbrey’s draftsman made these changes, sketching out two versions for the client’s review. She selected the one with lettering that rides a little lower on the stone. This served as the basis for the full-scale approval drawing. Mrs. Reeves signed off on it in late April, 1950. As with the aborted first stone, a signature on the final drawing did not signal an end to the design modifications. Even after the lettering had been cut, more changes ensued because Mrs. Reeves came to detest the ornamental devices used to separate the date and bracket the quotation. She wrote, “All this, to my mind, spoils what was an honest, straightforward, beautiful lettering, and it makes it completely commonplace. I want nothing, absolutely nothing, except the lettering and a tiny line between the dates. I’m sorry all this could not have been avoided. I thought I had anticipated everything, but apparently not.”
Presbrey prepared a new approval drawing and ventured in a letter to John Ramsay at Harris Granite, he wrote, “We have had considerable correspondence with this more or less neurotic woman.” He instructed Ramsay to cut the stone surface back to fresh stone so that it could be inscribed again, this time with no ornamental devices, only, as he called it, “a stiff, little hyphen” between birth and death dates. Ramsay wrote back, “You must be a man with unusual patience to go through the experience you have encountered without some loss of self control.”
The monument was finally installed at the Kenyon Cemetery in mid August, 1950, but Mrs. Reeves thought the E in the Latin word “sed” looked too much like a C and it would need to be remedied. Here’s the rubbing Mrs. Reeves produced on the left. She produced this rubbing and then sent it to Presbrey-Leland. It would be another year before the E was re-cut by a Presbrey-Leland stone-cutter working in nearby Canton, Ohio, but this photo taken last year on the right suggests that the re-cutting in the field wasn’t deep enough to really correct the mis-cut E.
In his request that Mrs. Reeves now pay the $226 still owed them, Clifton Presbrey couldn’t help but add, “We still have in our exhibit at the Woodlawn branch the colonial headstone originally cut for you, but hope to dispose of it sometime when we find a purchaser who is seeking a lovely little colonial headstone.” By the end of 1951, the client paid, and the Reeves monument odyssey was over.
Clifton Presbrey would live another 13 years. He died in 1964 at the age of 88. He was buried in Arlington Cemetery in Kearny, New Jersey, beneath the Celtic cross carved in Stony Creek granite that he had described to Mrs. Reeves. Despite her chain-smoking, Florence R
eeves lived to be 91. She was buried at Kenyon beside her husband. The final irony is that the attention to detail she had lavished upon her husband’s stone is absent from her own. Her daughter pre-deceased her, so it fell to her grandchildren to mark her grave. They did so with a stone that matched their grandfather’s in type and size, but everything about its lettering and design is perfunctory, light years from the carefully conceived and executed stone that she had shepherded 20 years earlier.
The very complete production file, with its drawings and the correspondence and memos that explain them, tells us that designing and producing this modest stone took more twists and turns than one could have ever imagined. Beyond that, it suggests that the completed stone, the artifact that emerged at the end of the process, can tell relatively little of its own story. It requires the historical record to speak for it. In addition, had only a part of the Presbrey-Leland file been retained, say the finished drawings, we would have had no understanding of the how and why the design evolved in the ways that it did. We need the whole ball of wax to understand what really happened and why.
But there’s a larger context to consider, as well, one that extends well beyond this little memorial in Gambier, Ohio. This small monument commission is only one of the thousands of products that Presbrey-Leland carried out. If we can look at this one project in conjunction with the others, we can answer questions that go far beyond what Mrs. Reeves wanted for her husband’s grave memorial. We can begin to better understand the broader business of monument-making in the 20th century.
The documents that detailed the creation of monuments provide critical information about the things and places that we’re trying to preserve, and they help us to make better conservation decisions, but more than that, documents such as these provide knowledge that can lead communities to place a higher value on the memorials that have grown mute as time has separated them from us, from their patrons, from their designers, and from their makers.
The task ahead is twofold, it seems to me: first, to do everything that we can to ensure that the at-risk project files of monument producers and dealers survive. For most of Presbrey-Leland’s records, this is being achieved through the efforts of Susan Olsen, Director of Historical Services at the Woodlawn Cemetery. She and a team of volunteers have saved much of the company’s archive from destruction. Like a kid with a box full of kittens outside the grocery store, Susan has been seeking new homes for Presbrey-Leland’s files among the cemeteries in which the company’s monuments reside and other regional cultural institutions.
But a second effort is equally important. Because the archive is being dispersed, it is essential that it also be scanned. Moreover, the digitized archive should remain fully accessible to researchers through open-access agreements with those institutions that receive the physical records. Without such measures, monuments like the Reeves memorial and, in fact, the world of 20th century monument-making will join the small things and not-so-small things forgotten. Thank you.
Professor William Peters Reeves chaired the English Department at Kenyon College for the first third of the 20th Century. He died in 1945 and was buried in the small campus cemetery in Gambier, Ohio.
The unassuming memorial stone placed at the head of his grave in 1950 cost only $276, about the price of a television set. But its creation was the subject of more than two years of correspondence between Reeves’ widow and the president of Presbrey-Leland Inc., one of the nation’s leading designers of cemetery monuments and mausoleums.
Despite the fact that the stakes were incredibly low here, the project’s history provides a window into the world of mid-twentieth century monument making, a world in which clients, designers, artisans and stone suppliers worked to bring to fruition even the simplest of commemorative works.
Dennis Montagna directs the National Park Service’s Monument Research & Preservation Program. Based at the Park Service’s Philadelphia Region Office, the program provides comprehensive assistance in the interpretation and care of historic cemeteries, outdoor sculpture and public monuments to managers of National Park sites and to other constituents nationwide.
Past projects include preservation planning and conservation for sculpture collections for the Gettysburg and Vicksburg Battlefields, the City of Richmond, Virginia, the Hudson River Valley Greenway, and the City of Monroe, Michigan. He has assisted historic cemeteries with a wide range of conservation projects. These include Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and The Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. He also advised Arlington National Cemetery on their recent conservation of the Tomb of the Unknowns. Presently, he is helping the city of Wilson, North Carolina plan the relocation, conservation and long-term maintenance of thirty of sculptor Vollis Simpson’s Whirligigs.
His work has also included the creation of new memorials. He chaired the federal review panel that selected a design for the African Burial Ground Memorial at the burial site of thousands of enslaved and free Africans in lower Manhattan. With sculptor Jim Barnhill, and on a much smaller scale, he designed a memorial for Booker T. Washington’s birthplace near Roanoke, Virginia.
Dennis holds a BA degree in Studio Art from Florida State University, a Master’s degree in Art History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Ph.D from the University of Delaware. He participated in the 1989 ICCROM Architectural Conservation Course in Rome, Italy with grants from the Kress and Getty Foundations, and in subsequent years has returned to Rome as a course instructor. He is a former chair of the American Institute for Conservation’s Architecture Specialty Group and served as an advisor to the national Save Outdoor Sculpture! Project.