NCPTT recently recorded its first podcast. In it, conservator Jason Church talks about NCPTT’s cemetery monument conservation initiative and about his experiences growing up that led him to the field of cemetery conservation. The program is available on the NCPTT website (M4A, 9MB) and on iTunes as “The Preservation Technology Podcast” (requires iTunes).
Kevin Ammons:Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast. I’m Kevin Ammons and today we are talking to Jason Church a conservator with the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Jason coordinates the Center’s very successful series of cemetery monument conservation workshops.
Kevin Ammons: Welcome Jason, I understand you used to live in a graveyard.
Jason Church: Kevin, that is true. I used to live in a graveyard. My wife, daughter, and I all lived in Laurel Grove South Cemetery in Savannah Georgia which is an all African American Victorian Rural Movement Cemetery. We were there as live-in caretakers for about almost two years. It’s always a good conversation starter at a party. “Well when we used to live in a cemetery…” It was a fun place to live we had good times there.
Kevin Ammons: Well most people don’t think, well I want to grow up and preserve cemeteries. What brought you into the field?
Jason Church: Actually I’m probably one of the few people that can narrow that down. Fourth grade North Carolina history class my teacher Ms. Lucas made us all do local history projects, and I was living in Wilmington, North Carolina and did a video tour of Oakdale Cemetery there in Wilmington. I got to know the caretaker he took me around told me all kinds of crazy stories and my dad and I would go there on the weekends and hang out with the caretaker. We even skipped school and worked together a few times to go. He took us in one of the mausoleums, the things a normal person wouldn’t get to see and I was always sort of interested and after that I did a lot of projects in graduate school. I did the graduate program in historic preservation at Savanna College of Art and Design and of course kept on focusing on cemetery. It ended up being a career.
Kevin Ammons: So tell us about the workshop. What are you teaching folks?
Jason Church: This year were covering all the basics we’re talking about cleaning techniques on stone, consolidation techniques, adhesive repairs, and both reinforced and unreinforced. We are also looking at patch fields and of course resetting a monument. And all of that this year will be focused on slate and brown stone which is sort of our unique spin on this workshop in the past we’ve looked at things like bronze, zinc, wooden fences, wooden grave markers, brick mausoleums, and vaulting that sort of thing. So every year it changes up a little bit and that’s good for the people that take the workshop year after year. We get the same people that occasionally will come back to get sort of the new techniques. This year it is being held in New England. It will be in New England this is the first time we have ever taken it to New England which is really important for us. New England is a very important area for cemetery conservation that’s of course the oldest cemeteries in the country and that’s where cemetery conservation really started was in New England so its very important for us to go there. We haven’t done it before and we are really looking forward to going there. It will be in New London Connecticut.
Kevin Ammons: I understand this workshop will focus on brown stone and slate. What made those materials so popular in New England and are they still used today?
Jason Church: Well they don’t use them as much today. There’s a few slate carpenters still in New England doing really beautiful work. That’s a very specialized thing that isn’t being used as much. I don’t know of any brown stone that is still being used but I could definitely be wrong about that. Slate and brownstone were really used especially in the slate because that was a very familiar material you have a lot in Europe, England, and in the British Isles. So it was sort of coming over with the people. They knew how to work that but it was also their material especially the brown stone that was very easy to get out of the ground so with minimal effort and not a lot of technology and tooling the pioneers of that area of the early New England settlers were able to carve and do some very beautiful work with the material. That was fairly easy to acquire.
Kevin Ammons: I understand the workshops have been held all over the country how do you determine where to host a workshop?
Jason Church: Well, we have moved this all over the country this is the 6th year we’ve done the workshop. We try to hold them in different regions to draw the people interested in this topic from that region. It works fairly well. We’ve discovered a lot of people from other regions also come for a little bit of a vacation as well and to see new thing and to look at new problems that they might not have. The reason we bring it to different regions also is to try to focus on different materials like the slate and brown stone of New England and the way that we choose this originally was areas that really needed. This issue of people who were calling us repeatedly saying were having a lot of concern in our area or a lot of interest in our area could you come here we have a lot of people interested we have a great case study for you to work at.
Jason Church: It changes because we’ve done so many of them now that now we have a large map of the US. I have mapped out everyone that we have taught classes to and were trying to start feeling in gaps where haven’t we been where haven’t we taught people and that’s sort of what’s helping us choose the new locations. Then we find partners in that and a really important thing to get us to come to an area is how good our partner is. We might not have the resource in that area so we’re looking for good partners who can help us come into that area and help us advertise help us learn that area that were going to hold the workshop at. Well as I said before it is hard to imagine folks wanting to work on cemeteries for a living yet the workshops have been going strong since 2003.
Kevin Ammons: What kind of people come to the cemetery monument conservation workshops?
Jason Church: Well that’s one good thing about our workshops we actually see a pretty wide diverse group. We have a real wide audience which is a real plus for the workshop because not only do you get to meet a large group of instructors we have a very small teacher to student ratio. We have anywhere from eight to ten instructors and we have the workshop at 32 participants.
Jason Church: So yeah, you get a lot of hands on time with each instructor but also you really get to network with other people that come from different disciplines and different areas. We get professional conservators. we get small church sections who maybe only want to do a few grave markers that you know have small cemeteries. A lot of people come in from national cemeteries that oversee pretty large groups of graves. A lot of city planners who maybe are not necessary going to do the work themselves, but they are looking to speculate the work out to professionals. So they don’t need to know what is the right way to do it, what should they be looking for in contract bids. So we have a really large group and of course we have lately a lot of retirees who are retired from some other occupation who are wanting to get into this in retirement age.
Jason Church: Genealogy is the fastest growing hobby in America right now so we are starting to get that baby boomer generation coming in to take these professional workshops and start doing it from time to time. Have these workshops branched out to other audiences too? Well when it started out we had just this three day hands on workshop like we will be holding in New England and that’s three days very intense hands on out in the field but we realized maybe we weren’t locating all of the audiences we needed. So we’ve actually branched off into three workshops in the series.
Jason Church: We have a much more hands on much more intensive five day workshop and that’s a week long. It takes a lot of time out so it’s really professional that really needs this sort of hands on intense workshop that covers a lot of complex issues.
Jason Church: But more important, we also teach a basics workshop and these are for a little bit larger groups. We take about 40 participants for these workshops. We hold them at different areas of the country as well and these are one day workshops that last about four to five hours. It’s mostly inside lecture with a hands on cleaning demonstration. In the inside lecture we talk about documentation of cemeteries. We talk about condition survey, how to identify the material that you’re looking at, and then of course the dos and don’ts of cleaning and usually a different topic each time we talk to our partners which are usually state preservation organizations on a different topic. Sometimes they want to look at well how do you do simple resetting or they want to look at trying to convey the importance of iron fencing or the importance of grave surrounds to a group.
Jason Church: The basics workshop really brings in that genealogist group. The small church sextons, a lot of DAR and Sons of Confederate veterans. A lot of groups like that that are really passionate about cemeteries who are doing the work and really want to know the right way to do it.
Kevin Ammons: Do you see any unmet needs or any other audiences out there that you plan to address in the future?
Jason Church: Sure there are a lot of materials involved in cemeteries. Most of our workshops are involved around stone and that’s one of the things we started branching out from to look at iron work, bronze, and zincs possibly start looking at more materials in cemeteries. We’ve done wood that sort of thing to try to hit audiences that maybe know about the stone work in cemetery but are maybe curious and need information about uh things like the fencing or the iron work. We talked to most groups. We do a lot of work with the Monument Builders of America that’s a really good group to work with cause they are really in the cemetery the most. They’re the ones there ancestors put the headstones in originally that sort of thing. So we done a lot of work with those that’s been a really good audience for us as well.
Kevin Ammons: Thanks for being here Jason.
Jason Church: No thank you Kevin.
Kevin Ammons: If you would like to learn more about the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training and the Cemetery Monument Conservation workshops visit our website at ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.
Produced by Jeff Guin