Plot-holders Slam Cemetery Plan

by Allan Appel | October 7, 2009 7:29 AM | | Comments (20)

nhigrovefence%20002.JPGAnne Schenk does not want to have passersby peeking in on her when she grieves at the grave of her husband Newt in the Grove Street Cemetery.

A cast iron picket fence — proposed as a renovation for the historic burial ground’s masonry wall along Prospect Street (pictured) — would likely open up that very prospect.

Schenk was among many impassioned plot-owners Tuesday night who sent that message to the two men pushing for the change: Architect Robert A.M. Stern, who designing two new nearby yale residential colleges; and Charles Ellis.

They delivered the message — and heard back from the pair — at the annual meeting at the Graduate Club of the cemetery’s “proprietors” (plot owners). They argued that the national landmark should not be touched except perhaps for landscaping changes.

In effect, they said, a good solid fence makes a good cemetery.

One woman present said that the proposed see-through cast iron fence “feels like a violation. My purchase of the plots included preservation of the place as it is.”

Currently only the cemetery’s entry side on Grove Street, which dates to 1797, has a cast iron fence. The sandstone walls, whose future is in question, date to the 1840s.

The proposal, formally put forward by Ellis, has caused a firestorm among preservationists. Ellis is a member of the proprietors’ 11-member standing committee.

nhigrovefence%20003.JPGThe gathering filled the largest room of the Graduate Club to overflowing. “There’s never been anything like this,” David Musto (at left in photo), a vice chair of the standing committee, said of the turnout.

Ellis retained Robert A.M. Stern to draw up the plan. Some critics accuse Ellis of carrying Yale’s architectural and urban-planning water: Stern is also the architect of the two new Yale residential colleges-in-the-making just to the north of the cemetery. And Ellis is married to Yale University Secretary Linda Lorimer and raises money for Yale. Students at the new residential colleges would be walking along the Prospect Street wall every day.

Tuesday night Ellis declared that the idea was his alone. Ellis said his motivation derived from a boyhood in Marblehead, Mass., an open cemetery town, where he learned U.S. history playing among the tombstones. “As a student at Yale,” he said, “it never occurred to me to go in [to Grove Street Cemetery].

“It is not a Yale idea. It’s me. No one at Yale mentioned the idea to me until I broached it with them. Then they introduced me to Bob Stern, who’s building the colleges.”

nhigrovefence%20005.JPGThat didn’t wash with city historian Deb Townshend, whose husband Harry (pictured) was for 32 years the president of the proprietors. They both gave the proposal a thumbs down.

“The wall should be for the convenience of mourners, not Yale students,” she said.

This mostly gray and white-haired crowd listened with utmost politeness to Stern’s fleshing out a plan that proponents say will provide visual relief and enhanced safety to walkers along Prospect. Opponents say it is not only disrespectful to the dead and their grievers, but also commits serious preservation sins.

Stern countered that he was proposing something both modest and not necessarily permanent — “a small intervention that can be reversed,” he said.

He described the fence renovation as consisting of three separate lengths of cast iron fence of 50 feet each inserted at three points along Prospect for a total of 150 feet. Since that’s some 5 percent of the total perimeter length, Stern termed it a “modest proposal” that has the benefit of “opening the cemetery into town and the town into the cemetery.”

He emphasized that the three cast iron sections, to be separated by the existing masonry sections, would be enhanced by several other elements of which the fence would be only a part.

nhigrovefence%20001.JPGThese others included: the planting of low shrubs on the outside to soften the wall and a bluestone buffer at the sidewalk; tall shrubs and trees, including the planting of American Liberty Elms on the inside of the wall and along the new cast iron fence sections all to form a leafy canopy; and replacement of the current “cobra” lights with standard Yale lights.

The landscaping suggestions were generally well received, but not the rest. Stern concluded by saying no historical structure is ever set in amber. He called the plan a response to the “public’s perception of a bleak [current] environment [along Prospect].” No small number of guffaws were heard when he said that.

He also termed the fences a “minimal intrusion of city to the inside.”

The woman who had just buried her husband at Grove Street still didn’t see it that way. As the cemetery stands, she said, “It’s the most beautiful place in New Haven. It’s a sacred space.”

Anne Schenk pointed out to a reporter that one of the new fence sections Stern proposed stands precisely along the line where her husband Newt, one of the city’s arts and preservation champions, lies buried.

Pat Kane, the curator of Yale’s furniture collection, rose and made the preservationist argument, also ardent if not quite as impassioned as that made by the dead, or rather their living surrogates. “To open the wall is to violate the [19th century] architectural concept,” she said.

New Haven State Rep. Pat Dillon counter-proposed to Stern: “Step back and think about it.” She opposed to the proposal, and raised another issue: “I’m concerned with an anti-Yale sentiment [growing] in the community.”

nhigrovefence%20004.JPGAnstress Farwell of the New Haven Urban Design League presented a petition bearing 450 names calling for leaving the wall undisturbed. It was co-sponsored by the New Haven Preservation Trust and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

Ellis resumed the podium and thanked his audience for its feedback.

As indicated by the standing committee president G. Harold Welch, Jr. (on right in the photo with Musto), no vote was taken. Nor would one be for some months to come, he said.

John Simon, another of the committee members, said the meeting helped the committee gather information. As several members of the audience and Stern had suggested, a next step is to have sound and noise tests taken when traffic resumes on Prospect.

Simon said that the standing committee alone would make the decision. In that regard it does not need approval of the general proprietors.

There was only one “pro” voice sounded in the public discussion. Stern told the man, with evident irony, that he would buy him a drink.

“I think it [the opposition] was expected,” said Simon. “Yet it’s doubtful the committee will be dominated by it alone.”







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Comments

Posted by: idea | October 7, 2009 7:33 AM

What about simply widening the sidewalk? The road there is too wide. If the university wants it to be more inviting to pedestrians, it'd make sense to make it a wider sidewalk & a narrower road.

Posted by: Lisa | October 7, 2009 8:41 AM

In New Haven there is so much ugly 1960's architecture done by "visionary" city planners who bulldozed their way through historic neighborhoods. It breaks my heart when I discover what was once in many areas of the city, things that are no more. I understand what Dean Stern is trying to do, but why mess with perfection? Leave it as is. If not, future generations will see our mistake, and judge us, and have to redo the wall all over again. We see the undoing of bad planning all the time. The cemetery is open enough. I always felt safer when visiting/exploring as a Yale student because of the one Grove St. egress - I knew some creep was less likely to be in there hiding and with a ready escape. I is clear that this is not what the people want, so please back off of your plans.

Posted by: nutmeg [TypeKey Profile Page] | October 7, 2009 9:21 AM

if big blue is so worried about prospect street, it should look in the mirror first. all of it's buildings on propsect between trumbull and college are dull and inactive. if it wants more activity on the street, it should concentrate on its own real estate holdings first before telling the community what to do.

Posted by: terrapin | October 7, 2009 9:37 AM

Didn't Dean Stern also want to keep the Veterans Memorial Coliseum up, not so that we could have a sports and entertainment venue, but because it was such a fine example of Brutalist design? Could we just once have something left alone for the greater good of the community and not be changed soley for the benefit of Yale? No one seemed to care about how this wall looked until Yale was building more dorms on the far side of the cemetery.

Posted by: Grove Street Speaks | October 7, 2009 9:59 AM

The entire basis for Mr. Stern's design proposal is a “public’s perception of a bleak [current] environment [along Prospect].” Says who? Where is his proof? Has he asked the public or is he basing this on a survey of Yale College students that was conducted to ask their opinion about the location of the new colleges? YC students are not "the public" of New Haven, they are transient 4-year visitors to this city- most of them never become invested citizens of New Haven. I think the true New Haven residential "public" showed up to adamantly disagree with Mr Stern and Mr. Ellis last night. Does it come down to whose opinion counts more? New Haven residents are the stewards of this city and it's rich history, and Yale College kids have very fickle opinions (check the Yale Daily News articles this year disagreeing with the idea of a fence, a flip-flop of last year's student opinion). So without proof for the foundation of the gentlemen's argument, why are they moving forward with sound measurements on Prospect Street? By the way, one set of sound measurements now will not illustrate the additional noise levels once the new Yale Colleges are open. Don't be fooled, Proprietors of Grove Street! Ask the tough questions and listen to the impassioned pleas of those with loved ones buried within these beautiful grounds. And please don't touch that wall!

Posted by: Our Town [TypeKey Profile Page] | October 7, 2009 10:24 AM

This idea makes me laugh…the rest of Yale is virtually a walled city. I feel that way when I walk past many Yale buildings. The audacity of this concept is astonishing, and if the standing committee actually approves this, I hope they will be ‘haunted’ by the decision for the rest of their lives.

Posted by: jawbone | October 7, 2009 10:25 AM

Fascinating story.
Perhaps there is an elephant in the corner of the room here. I believe the "bleak environment" along Prospect is created by Marcel Breuer's Becton Engineering and Applied Science Center on the other side of the street. How about punching some holes in that pile of concrete?
The cemetery wall is beautiful and stately. Leave it alone.
Yale has planned a huge new residential college on the other side of a large walled cemetery. That's Yale's problem, not New Haven's. No amount of punching holes in the cemetery walls is going to fix that fact that the new college is completely cut off from the rest of campus.

Posted by: Norton Street | October 7, 2009 10:33 AM

Nutmeg,
Exactly.

Prospect Street should be improved. Widen the sidewalk and add a row of street trees so create a vaulted walkway. Don't try to improve the conditions on the sidewalk by distracting pedestrians with views into the cemetery, actually fix the problems of the street.
Its all in the trees:

http://blog.nj.com/hobokennow_impact/2009/07/large_Walkway.jpg

http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3467/3363044554_e4fabe4b27.jpg

Posted by: steve ross, human | October 7, 2009 11:35 AM

Leave the wall!

Posted by: Bruce | October 7, 2009 11:45 AM

Why does Yale always have to rip down or muck up the city's historic structures? I have been walking down that block since I was a child. That wall is beautiful and there is nothing wrong with it. Please, just leave it alone.

Posted by: Ed Bishop | October 7, 2009 12:09 PM

At least Mr. Ellis finally gave SOME reason for opening up the wall: to entertain passing pedestrians. Now we can all weigh that 'value' next to those of the people protesting this 'improvement.'

As my family's monuments in Grove St. Cemetery, including my ggggggggggggGrandfather's (Connecticut's first Lieutenant Governor), will be exposed not only to gawking pedestrians but to the corrosive pollution of the traffic, I am very gratified that so many local folks came out to protest.

300+ years of thanks from my family to all those concerned citizens who ARE going to stop this short-sighted proposal.

Posted by: Tom | October 7, 2009 12:11 PM

I'm no expert but Yale did a "redo" on its Archetictural School building because it always looked ugly. Sterns suport of saving the, too big, too ugly, too much money, Coliseum I would be wary of any revilization plans Stern may have. At one time wasn't there a tunnel used by students under the cemetary? Re-open that and as a gift to the town finish the canal bike path. And remember there are rumors Yale med students used the site for their "homework?'

Posted by: Jim | October 7, 2009 12:27 PM

why is Yale, who's very existence is built on history and landmarks, so determined to continue to rip down the history that surrounds them? this is very disturbing.

Posted by: anon | October 7, 2009 1:25 PM

As Deirdre McCloskey put it, focusing on the wall is like looking for your lost keys under the lamppost because the light is better there.

The problem is the street and sidewalk, not the wall. Currently, the street is a 50 mile per hour highway cutting through the middle of the Yale campus. Dozens of students, faculty and staff have been injured in the area. All of these are preventable. Despite the fact that it is the campus "spine," the current street is not at all pleasant for walking or biking (particularly for those of varying ages/abilities/disabilities)- a highly ironic situation to see on a campus like Yale's. There are no mid-block crosswalks and traffic speeds and weaves as it flies down the hill towards Grove & Prospect.

Given that lower speeds are the only way to make the street more pleasant and prevent injuries, there is no reason that the community should accept traffic speeds of greater than 10-15 miles per hour along this block.

That said, eventually changing the wall to bring it more in line with "open" urban cemeteries such as those in the city centers of Boston and New York is a very interesting idea. I love seeing those cemeteries packed with people, both visitors and passerbys, enabling them to connect directly with history as they walk around the city each day.

That should be much more of a long-term discussion, however. But I'm glad that Ellis, Stern, the neighbors and everyone else have started it because a lot of good can come out of this discussion as we all strive to make the city a better place to live.

Posted by: OldPunk | October 7, 2009 2:20 PM

Put some windows in Book and Snake across the street, that building makes me feel cold. Skull and Bones could use a paint job and shutters. Leave our tombs alone and make your own more "entertaining."

Posted by: William Kurtz | October 7, 2009 2:24 PM

It seems the unfavorable consequences of this minor architectural change are going to far and away exceed any possible positive ones. In other words, fence, wall, whatever--I can't see it making a difference in this supposedly bleak public perception the wall causes (and with all respect, I'm calling BS on there being any measurable "bleak" perception; everyone I know with an opinion on the matter thinks the Grove St. Cemetery is one of the most beautiful spots in town) but it's obviously creating a large amount of anger and resentment on the parts of city residents, architecture enthusiasts, and the people with vested emotional interests in the nature of the cemetery. Bruce said it best: please, leave it alone.

Posted by: TheVin | October 7, 2009 2:28 PM

Yale+liberals=mental disorder. They don't care about the history. Heck, they typically hate America's history....

Posted by: Bruce | October 9, 2009 10:49 AM

Another quality of this wall that is worth mentioning. It makes the cemetery more private on the inside. Those of us who have relatives buried in there appreciate some peach while paying respects. Breaks in the wall would increase noise pollution as well as visual distractions. Please, don't touch our wall.

Posted by: Hmmm... | October 9, 2009 3:42 PM

I walked past there almost every day for 3 years. I can't remember every noticing there was a wall.

Posted by: Jon H | October 9, 2009 9:03 PM

The walls around the cemetery have always stuck with me, although I've only rarely been in New Haven, having grown up in Cheshire.

I'm guessing some consultant told them that Yale needed more green space, and putting in a tacky iron fence is their way of adding greenspace on the cheap.

Meanwhile, they'd be getting rid of something distinctive and lasting, and replacing it with something bland and ordinary.

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