This lecture is part of the 2009 Nationwide Cemetery Preservation Summit
Planning for Municipally‐Owned Cemetery Preservation by Patricia M. O’Donnell and Sarah K. Cody
Many cities and towns have cemetery landscapes that once shone as pockets of green space, serving as much needed burial grounds and welcome respites from bustling city streets. Over time, as City resources have become strained, funding is often redirected to parks and playgrounds, which are perceived as more valuable community spaces than cemeteries. As a result, formerly scenic and restful cemetery grounds are neglected or degraded today. Over the course of the last two decades, several US cities have exhibited renewed interest in their burial grounds. Today, people recognize that these public landscapes often represent the spectrum of the population of city, from transient populations buried in unmarked plots, to graves of the famous and influential. Local cemeteries tell stories of the evolution and social history of the broader community and can be both a place of learning and reflection for visitors today. Recognition of cemetery value and increased interest often leads to volunteer clean‐up efforts, formation of ‘Friends’ groups, and preservation planning projects and advocacy.
As cemetery preservation and renewal has gained increasing focus over recent years, it has become apparent that while similar issues are present in cemeteries nationwide, there are also more specific issues that arise. Limited funding, appropriate methods of preserving historic features, and maintenance are common issues hindering optimal use, functionality, and quality of visitor experiences. Specific issues also exist that relate directly to cemetery landscape type, available resources, and perceived value to the surrounding community. Resolution to these issues requires a different approach to renew, enhance, and interpret valued cemetery landscapes.
To best understand the inherent commonalities and particular issues plaguing US cemeteries today, a comparison between two distinctly different cemetery landscapes is explored. Heritage Landscapes is currently developing preservation planning documents for Old North Cemetery in Hartford, Connecticut and Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York. These two historic cemetery landscapes offer an interesting comparison.
Located in a modest neighborhood of Hartford, an historic, industrial city, Old North Cemetery was established in the early 19th century to provide the city with a municipal burying ground. When the cemetery was first established, character, use, and perceptions of burial practices were focused primarily on functionality. Soon after, burial practices and perceptions began to shift, focusing more on defining a picturesque character where visitors could stroll along paths under a wooded canopy and dappled sunlight. This later consideration of landscape character and quality is evident at Old North Cemetery largely through the collection of ancient trees. Old North Cemetery is a city‐owned cemetery and important green space that offers a valuable resource to the surrounding neighborhood; the character of the cemetery contributes to the character and perception of the broader neighborhood. However, community residents do not appear to embrace the cemetery as a valued community resource. Given the importance of providing accessible, public open space in conjunction with the limited city resources, community engagement is essential to the overall renewal of Old North Cemetery. Heritage Landscapes has recommended creation of neighborhood initiatives such as historically sensitive repair and conservation skill‐building programs, youth training, and other projects as a means to generate interest, foster pride in the cemetery, and stimulate the local community. Utilizing community‐focused initiatives is a cost efficient approach for carrying out specific projects and for enhancing community value of the space.
Mount Hope Cemetery is significant as an intact example of a mid‐19th century designed, picturesque cemetery. It was established and improved by the City of Rochester as part of the emerging rural cemetery movement, a time when scenic, picturesque cemeteries were developed in the United States and abroad. Today, this impressive cemetery landscape conveys its historic character while accommodating limited burials and providing a valued green space and place of respite to Rochester residents and visitors alike. To better understand the landscape and guide maintenance protocols and future interventions, Heritage Landscapes identified distinct landscape typologies within the cemetery. The character of the grounds and discrete landscape types are defined largely by the relationships between the dramatically undulating ground plane, network of curvilinear drives and paths, woodland canopy, and gravestones and monuments. By understanding the landscape types defined by the relationships between landscape features, specific projects are recommended that will help recapture lost historic features, enhance landscape character, and decrease required maintenance efforts.
Cemeteries throughout the US today are challenged by issues that hinder optimal use, functionality, and maintainability of the landscape. Preservation of valued cemetery landscapes requires consideration of general and site specific issues. Old North Cemetery and Mount Hope Cemetery are two distinctly different landscapes, offering different resources and facing different challenges. Heritage Landscapes has worked with each client group to identify issues as well as future goals to guide future treatment efforts. These cemeteries are important historic and cultural landscapes that contribute to the broader collection of public open space and cultural resources in their respective cities. By preserving these landscapes, we not only foster understanding our history, but we also help guide the future of our communities.
Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, AICP, Principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects & Planners, is widely recognized as an expert in the field of landscape preservation. She holds master degrees in both landscape architecture and urban planning from the University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign and is licensed in fifteen states. She is a founding board member of The Cultural Landscape Foundation and serves as the International Federation of Landscape Architects Cultural Landscapes Committee Global Chair, encouraging communication among landscape architects worldwide to enhance recognition and expertise. She is an active ICOMOS expert member and participant in the World Heritage process. In 1987 O’Donnell founded Heritage Landscapes LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects & Planners, a professional firm dedicated to stewarding heritage places toward a vibrant future through holistic planning and design.
Sarah K. Cody, Associate ASLA, has been a valued member of the Heritage Landscapes staff since September 2007. She holds a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture and Master of Science in Landscape Architecture from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Recently she provided important staffing for comprehensive preservation planning projects for the Mount Hope Cemetery Cultural Landscape Report, Tree Inventory & Management Plan, Old North Cemetery Historic Landscape Preservation Master Plan, and Princeton Nurseries, Mapleton Preserve Cultural Landscape Report, among others. She has a strong landscape architectural research methods foundation and contributes to the firm’s ongoing commitment to help foster heritage places through improved planning, management, and interpretation.