A Monumental Task

Preserving cenotaphs at Congressional Cemetery

Congressional
Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Credit: Andrew Cutraro

For much of the 19th century, when a Congressman died in office, he was honored with a sandstone commemorative marker, or cenotaph, at Washington, D.C.'s Congressional Cemetery. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, often called the nation's first architect, designed the nearly five-ton monuments to memorialize such eminent leaders as House Speaker Henry Clay and Vice President John Calhoun. More than 160 cenotaphs were built starting in 1807—60 marking actual gravesites. But the practice was discontinued in 1876, reputedly after Massachusetts Sen. George Hoar famously said that the monuments added a "new terror to death."

Until recently, the cenotaphs stood on the brink of ruin. (They were part of the reason Congressional was added to the 1997 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, which sparked renewed interest in the site.) Acid rain and other pollutants had turned them nearly black. The stones were cracked and missing large chunks. The elements had eroded the names engraved on marble plaques and made them nearly illegible.

Then Moss Rudley, an exhibit specialist with the National Park Service, led a team of conservators and stone masons on a painstaking two-year restoration. The $1.75 million project, initiated in 2007 and funded by the National Cemetery Administration, coincided with Congressional's 200th anniversary. Sara Amy Leach, a senior historian with the cemetery administration, notes that there has been tremendous growth in cemetery preservation. And Rudley thinks the project at Congressional could serve as a model for future projects: "I gained a lifetime of knowledge and skills," he says.

A private preservation firm had assessed the damage at Congressional and recommended replacing the main sections of more than 50 cenotaphs, which are topped by capstones and sit on stone bases. But Rudley's team managed to save roughly half of them, replacing the rest with replicas made from the same local Aquia Creek sandstone the original carvers used.

The restorers cleaned the monuments by spraying a micro-abrasive glass powder at low pressure to reveal the striking veins in the sandstone. And stone masons repaired damaged sections of the monuments with so-called Dutchman repairs, which required exacting masonry skills. Some of the new patches of sandstone stand out against the original material. But, as Rudley says, that's just fine: "You can't re-create 200 years of patina. And you wouldn't want to. We want future generations to see what we did here."

Surprises abounded during the project. Rudley and his team discovered that some of the cenotaphs were carved in whole or part from other materials, such as granite and Seneca Creek sandstone. And in an ecofriendly twist, he determined that some of the monuments were assembled using leftover stone from nearby construction projects. Rudley believes some material may even have come from the U.S. Capitol.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, came when the team decided to restore a monument—not a cenotaph—to Maj. Gen. Alexander Macomb, and discovered a previously unknown burial vault. Anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institution confirmed that the vault contained the bodies of the general and his wife, Catherine. After they exhumed the bodies, workers cleaned, stabilized, and restored the 13-foot marble monument and brick vault, recovering a set of the general's dentures and the sterling silver nameplate from his coffin.

At the project's completion, the bodies were reinterred during a ceremony attended by some of the general's descendants. "They were by our side through the entire process," says Laurie Burgess, associate chair of the Smithsonian's anthropology department. "They helped lay the remains in a mahogany coffin...It's rare that you have a project that comes full circle like this."

 

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