Courtesy of The Friends of Ithaca City Cemetery

The City of Ithaca is funding an assessment of the Ithaca City Cemetery's 12 vaults, hoping to determine which are at the greatest risk of collapse.

May 9, 2017

Crumbling Vaults Spawn City-Funded Review of Cemetery

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After a spate of vandalism and years of deterioration, Ithaca is funding a comprehensive study of the city’s second-largest green space — the Ithaca City Cemetery — and the dozen vaults that could be in danger of collapsing.

One of the vaults has already collapsed, and some who work to preserve the historic cemetery worry that others could soon follow if nothing is done. Among several regionally famous people buried in the cemetery is Ezra Cornell’s oldest son, Alonzo B. Cornell, who served as the 27th governor of New York.

But recently, vandals have spray painted maintenance buildings, knocked over gravestones and split others in half, to the dismay of Ellen Leventry ’95, a member of Friends of the Ithaca Cemetery, a group that helps preserve the graveyard and keep it clean.

Kristen Olson M.A. ’08, an architectural historian and technician for engineering firm Vertical Access, used several different methods last week to take photographs of the vaults’ interiors, the most successful of which was sticking a GoPro camera through holes on an “extra-large selfie stick” and illuminating the insides with a flashlight.

The findings, compiled by Vertical Access, will give the city a comprehensive update on the structural stability of the vaults and the estimated cost of repairing each, allowing officials to prioritize the crypts in greatest need of repair.

“You don’t have to be a material scientist or structural engineer to see that there are problems with some of” the vaults, Olson said. “Most of these things are approaching 150 years old, really without a whole lot of maintenance over the years, and especially being built into the ground, there’s a lot of moisture.”

The 16-acre cemetery, surrounded by University, Cornell and Stewart avenues is frequently used as a foot route by Cornell students who live downtown and trudge by the historic markers.

Known by several names since about 1790, the burial ground became the city cemetery when Ithaca was incorporated in 1888. Generations of students who cut through the cemetery on their way to class have called it “The Boneyard Cut.”

“It really is an integral part of the Cornell campus experience,” said Leventry, who is also director of marketing and communications at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a member of Friends of the Ithaca Cemetery. “It’s a great way to learn about Ithaca history in general and a beautiful contemplative space.”

Olson, hired by the city to assess the vaults, said the frequent use of the cemetery by locals makes it even more of a priority to protect.

“There are constantly people jogging through the cemetery, walking dogs, riding bikes, and these are historical markers that are important to preserve, from a community standpoint,” she said.

The city forester, Jeanne Grace MS ’10, lauded the views from the cemetery and said she wished Ithacans and Cornellians would take time to relax in or explore the resting place, which she said should be used as a recreational space.

“I really want to get more people out into the cemetery,” she said. “I want people to realize the former use that cemeteries had, and not get freaked out by it, but see it as a passive, peaceful, recreational space and enjoy the trees, enjoy the history.”

The assessment by Vertical Access would allow the city to get a “holistic view” of what needs fixing so the city can put money toward the areas that need it most, Grace added.

Much of the deterioration and erosion stems from a lack of maintenance and materials from which the vaults are made. Sandstone is not the most durable, Olson said, and local stone tends to crack. The slope on which the cemetery sits has also caused some vaults to shift several inches.

Vertical Access will provide additional estimates for emergency stabilization of the three vaults in the worst condition, Olson said, “so we don’t end up with another collapse like the Esty vault,” namesake of Esty Street.

Leventry noted that when there were fewer parks in Ithaca, people often held picnics and other respectful festivities in the cemetery and said she wishes people would hold casual activities there again today.

“This is not a place to dump your trash or knock over stones or vandalize,” she said. “We want to let people know that there is activity happening in the cemetery and there are people caring for it.”