Although there were no reports of ghosts, bones or anything too unsettling, the members of the Preservation Studies Student Organization’s (PSSO) said their restoration of a cemetery on the outskirts of the town of Ithaca was an exciting experience.
The Davis Family Cemetery, neglected for decades, was in poor condition when the PSSO came to its rescue. The group removed unruly vegetation and cataloged, restored and preserved headstones. They also planted ground cover to prevent further overgrowth, according to Nathan Jonjevic ’01, PSSO’s president.
The PSSO, mostly composed of City and Regional Planning students, discovered the site after some of the members surveyed the Steep Hollow Farm where the cemetery is located. The students undertook the restoration as a volunteer project, but they also found it an exciting way to supplement their traditional classroom education.
“This was a way for us to actively work on an aspect of the building environment. We sit here and listen to all this theory, and we don’t work on buildings or materials at all,” Jonjevic said. “To get out and actually do something physical and not have to worry so much about theory is pretty exciting.”
Although the Davis family moved away from their property in the 1930s, they retain an easement on the cemetery. This grants them access to the property and the right to bury someone on the land. The most recent headstone from the Davis family indicates a Davis burial in the 1960s, but the cemetery has not been maintained since the family left the area.
Prof. Barbara Ebert, historic preservation planning, advises the PSSO and worked on the cemetery with the students. “The cemetery project was a great opportunity for students in historic preservation to practice the skills and lessons they learn in the classroom,” she said.
“Preservation is interesting because it is interdisciplinary. We look at history, the history of planning, architecture and technology, and engineering,” Jonjevic said.
The work on the Davis cemetery involved many of these aspects. The restorers cleared overgrown vegetation and planted white clover to prevent pioneer plants from growing in the future, according to Jonjevic. They cleaned headstones and adjusted some sunken ones back to level ground. After being cleaned, some headstones were placed face down to prevent further deterioration from rain, wind and snow of the epitaph.
Brian Beadles grad, who participated in the project, allowed that this practice may seem counterintuitive. “We turn them face down because we know that it’s not a cemetery that’s being used anymore,” he said. “It’s not being visited anymore by family so it was not our first priority to make sure that you can read them.”
While working on the headstones, Beadles took interest in the designs, which often incorporated a willow tree and the messages of the headstones. “It was a lot of fun to be able to get back into a space that was forgotten about for a while,” he said. “From some of the headstones you can get a feel for some of the ideologies of the families.”
Ebert was pleased that the PSSO students were given the opportunity to “get a chance to learn about what the issues are with a cemetery,” which includes use of building material and landscape design.
“Cemeteries are interesting from the perspective of preservationists because it give us a laboratory to observe a wide range of material conservation issues,” Jonjevic said. “And it also provides a dated index of building material that are present in the area. You can go into a cemetery and see when they start using marble and limestone.”
PSSO plans to return in the spring to repaint an iron fence surrounding the cemetery and check on vegetation growth. They also hope to restore some of the original landscape design of the cemetery. Originally, the design included a cedar tree at each corner, according to Jonjevic.
Only one tree remains standing, and the PSSO hopes to plant propagules of this tree where the original trees once stood.
Archived article by April Sommer