Monumental Conservation: Green-Wood Cemetery Gains a Conservator

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A stitch in time saves nine. Or, as the Romanian proverb has it, he who repairs not his gutter repairs the whole house.

Green-Wood Cemetery has taken that sentiment to heart. For the first time in its storied history, Green-Wood Cemetery has a full-time manager of preservation and restoration and an on-site conservation studio.

The historic cemetery was founded in 1838 and by the mid-19th century was a popular excursion spot. While the landscape is inspiring in itself, it is also home to a massive collection of 19th and 20th century gravestones, sculptures and mausoleums  –– an impressive sculpture park.

Brownstoner spoke with Green-Wood Manager of Preservation and Restoration Neela Wickremesinghe to find out more about her work at the cemetery, parts of which are landmarked, and plans for tackling projects at the 478-acre site.

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Neela Wickremesinghe

Brownstoner: What is the plan for the restoration shop?
Wickremesinghe: The goal is to have a full service studio, which will enable us to expand conservation work we do in-house and to do more work in winter. Eventually we hope to hold workshops in order to share more information about our conservation projects with the public. In April, we will be hosting a conservation-themed talk on restoration, the first in a series of short presentations on the inner workings of Green-Wood.

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How are projects chosen?
Right now we are still very reactionary, it can sort of be like triage. We still have storm damage from Superstorm Sandy that we are sorting out. We also have projects that require perpetual care and need regular maintenance that take priority.

An important part of the work is also keeping track of sculptural elements that may have become detached from a monument — these are geo-tagged and taken to the studio so that the appropriate repairs can be made and returned back to where they belong in the field.

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Conservation team members Felix Hernandez and Gustavo Padilla

How big is your team?
We have a three person crew.

What are some of your goals?
I would really like to move forward with a full digital survey of the cemetery so we can establish a comprehensive understanding of what we have, and record that institutional memory. We would use this method to digitally tag repair priorities and really start to see patterns of wear over time.

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Cedar Dale

What projects have you worked on so far?
An early project was documenting the condition of the monuments at the Cedar Dell section of the cemetery. The marble and brownstone grave markers were relocated from a Dutch Reformed church and are among the oldest in Green-Wood, dating to the 18th and early 19th century. I photographed each marker, recorded the current condition and came up with conservation treatment recommendations to slow down the deterioration of the stones.

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What kind of materials does your team deal with?
You can see the history of funerary monuments in the materials we deal with –– brownstone, slate, marble, granite and even some white metal monuments. The scale might be different from a grand historic building, but many of the issues of weathering and cleaning are the same.

How do these different materials weather the New York climate?
It depends on the field conditions, where the monument is located within the cemetery, and the original construction methods. That said, brownstone in this climate can weather quite harshly. Marbles are also susceptible to deterioration from years in acidic climates. This can lead to “sugaring” or disaggregation — when the marble surface begins to actively come apart into separate crystals, like sugar.

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Checking out some brownstone deterioration

Do you have any tips for homeowners that might be dealing with some of these materials?
Think long and hard before painting a natural stone or brick surface. Any paint that you apply to these substrates will create a vapor barrier between your walls and the outside environment, which could lead to faster deterioration. Also, if you are taking on a repointing project, make sure to do your homework — use the right mortar mix, not just Portland cement.

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You are fairly new to the job. How are you learning about the site?
During my first week at Green-Wood my boss gave me some great advice: “You gotta get out of the truck.” Walking and getting to know the landscape is the best way to understand it. You turn a corner here and see new things every single day. And fortunately, there is also a wealth of institutional memory here: I am working with people who have cared for these monuments for decades and really know the history of repairs and issues. They can look at a monument and tell me exactly when certain repairs were done or how long something has been broken.

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What other highlights were there in your first months on the job?
Whenever I get to go into the archives — seeing a note from family members, or old institutional records regarding markers. Seeing these really brings out the individual stories behind each of the monuments.

Any tips for visitors?
Keep an eye out for the zinc monuments! They look like stone but they are actually made out of sheet metal. They look bright blueish white on a sunny day. They are a great example of architectural realism on a small scale.

green-wood cemetery brooklyn conservation

[Photos by Susan De Vries]

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