Visit any cemetery, anywhere in the world, and you’ll see the impact of weather and time on the sculptures, headstones and more. Stone that’s exposed to the elements will always show signs of wear. Marble, which is in abundance at Green-Wood, is especially porous and is the most vulnerable. Granite, on the other hand, can look almost new even when it’s over a century old. Other stones, and also stained glass and metals, also need a lot of tender loving care as they age.
Green-Wood has an unwavering commitment to conserving its historic graves and monuments. Those stones commemorate lives and life stories, and they are fundamental to the families and to the mission we serve. Restoration and preservation at the cemetery is guided by Green-Wood’s own professionally trained preservationist who, together with her dedicated team, demands the highest standards for the work.
If your family has a historic burial lot at Green-Wood and you’d like a conditions assessment and cost estimate for conservation work, reach out to us and inquire. We have worked with hundreds of lot holders over the years. One example, in 2017, was the full restoration of the brownstone vault of Joseph H. Terry, purser to the United States Navy during the Civil War. The restoration team repointed the structure, stabilized its roof, and steam cleaned the exterior. The lot holder received the combined expertise of Green-Wood’s historian, lot holder liaison and the manager of restoration and preservation. The result was a beautifully restored mausoleum that dates back to the nineteenth century.
In 2017, stained glass was a key priority for Green-Wood. We surveyed windows in need of repair, researched the most significant ones, and created a best practice guide for their conservation, for use within the cemetery. Through a generous sponsorship from Karcher, a German company with international expertise in historic monument cleaning, Green-Wood hosted a team of technicians from Germany in spring 2017 who steam cleaned some of Green-Wood’s most notable monuments: the Charlotte Canda Monument (1845), the Niblo Vault (1851), and the Miller Mausoleum (ca. 1870). Visitors to Green-Wood have been astounded to see the dramatic impact of the high-temperature, low-pressure cleaning techniques Karcher brought to Green-Wood.
With an eye toward Green-Wood’s future, the restoration team is also integrally involved in cultural and educational programming at the cemetery. For the April 2017 installation of Here Lies the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery, an interactive art piece conceived by installation artist Sophie Calle, the department created a custom cast concrete base for the marble obelisk and a kind of mail slot in the obelisk.
Later that year, seven NYC high school summer interns experienced history and historic preservation far beyond their textbooks. The group researched burial lots made available to free African-American Brooklynites in the 1840s, which, like many of the public lots at the cemetery, had not fared well over the years. The students, who worked side-by-side with the cemetery’s restoration team, were able to locate and repair 71 formerly neglected monuments. The work included excavation, cleaning and repointing. Ten of the gravestones had been completely invisible, having sunk below the surface. They were raised and reset.
For the visitor to Green-Wood, the restoration and care of the hundreds of thousands of monuments at the cemetery may seem overwhelming. But to the team that lovingly oversees their conservation, it is a responsibility and a privilege they are committed to for decades to come.