Anne 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.
The 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.”
That 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.
These 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.”
Anstress 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.”