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Cenotaph Conservation Project
Within the iron gates of Historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC, are 166 monuments designed by America’s first professional architect, Benjamin Latrobe, to honor members of Congress who died in office in the early to mid-1800s. Commissioned by Congress, the cenotaphs are now the property of the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2006, the VA’s National Cemetery Administration (NCA) authorized $1,750,000 for the conservation and restoration of the cenotaphs.
Included in the scope of work were two other VA-owned monuments, the Arsenal Monument and the Macomb Monument.
Recognizing the historic significance of these unique artifacts, the NCA’s Office of Historic Preservation brought the highest standards of professional conservation to bear on the project. The NCA contracted the National Park Service Historic Preservation Training Center (HPTC) to execute the effort. HPTC, in turn, consulted with the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT) and the DC Department of Historic Preservation.
The conservation of the cenotaphs and the Arsenal Monument represent a major preservation undertaking undertaking incorporating 21st Century technology, oldest & newest “green” technology, highly skilled craftsmanship, interagency cooperation, advancement of 19th Century anthropological study, training for the next generation of conservators, archaeologists, & anthropologists, and unique modes of public education & outreach. In size, scope, challenges, and accomplishments this project is a model for preservation efforts across the nation.
The cenotaphs are large sandstone monuments with strong clean features that reflect the classical inspirations of the new capital city. Inset marble plaques dedicate each monument to specific congressmen, many of whom are veterans of the Revolutionary War. By the end of the 20th Century, many cenotaphs were in significant states of deterioration.
HPTC conducted a series of tests to find an efficient low impact cleaning process, including detergents and lasers. Micro-abrasive glass powder proved the best alternative. Where significant stone failure existed, HPTC carved “Dutchmen” inserts to replace the original stone, an historically accurate approach. In a few cases HPTC replaced the entire monument.
At 25 feet tall, the Arsenal Monument stands in bold silent witness to the loss of 22 women in a munitions factory fire during the Civil War. Erected in 1865, the Arsenal Monument is suffering the effects of acid rain. HPTC applied a consolidant or sealer to the sugaring surface to stabilize the marble grains and then tested a new technique of misting the stone with a 24 hour cycle of 20 seconds mist - 5 minutes off. HPTC found the monument was in structurally good condition.
The Macomb Monument is a 13 foot tall, 7-ton, marble statue incorporating many iconographic symbols erected in honor of a hero of the War of 1812. The statue sits above a brick burial chamber whose existence was unknown prior to the start of the restoration effort. The initial task was simply to clean and re-set the seriously leaning monument. Upon examination, the HPTC team discovered the underground tomb. HPTC determined that the deteriorated state of the vault, if unattended, would lead to the failure of the entire structure and monument. HPTC brought in nationally recognized specialists in stone conservation and used state-of-the-art preservation techniques and methods to care for the Macomb Monument, including ground penetrating radar and remote video scopes. HPTC repaired the brick vault and added a new more solid structure surrounding the original structure to hold up the marble monument.
Recognizing the complexity of restoration projects involving human remains, the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery (HCC) sought the advice and counsel of the DC Historic Preservation Office (DCHPO) regarding applicable regulations and requirements. HCC also sought the assistance of the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) to remove the remains for the duration of the restoration project. The NMNH team is world renown for expertise in forensic anthropology and the care and respect accorded human remains. With approval of the Macomb descendants, NMNH undertook a thorough examination of the remains at the Museum laboratories, adding to the knowledge of 19th Century North American culture and health. Participation of SI interns helped train the next generation of archaeologists and anthropologists with hands-on field and laboratory work.
Upon completion of the project, HCC coordinated a reinterment ceremony that included the Macomb descendants, representatives from the Armed Forces, the Ft. McHenry Guard, and representatives of the news media. The remains of the Major General and his wife were placed in the historic Public Vault the evening before the ceremony; the first re-use of the Public Vault in over 50 years.
The preservation and restoration of the sandstone cenotaphs and marble monuments at Congressional Cemetery incorporated some of the oldest and newest of “green” technology: 1) the stone used for Dutchman repairs early in the project was recycled from stone remnants from the construction of the U.S. Capitol, 2) stone determined to be no longer suitable as a complete monument was recycled into smaller Dutchman repair components, 3) the lime-based mortars used to fill voids and bind elements together is an environmentally friendly compound, 4) environmentally sensitive anti-microbial D2 was used to inhibit microbial growth on the gravestones, 5) where more aggressive measures were needed, the blast media was made of inert recycled glass beads, 6) no chemical solvents were used to clean stones, 7) a state-of-the-art misting technology was used to gently rinse away accumulated dirt from marble monuments and plaques.
Mayor's Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation
The unique aspects of the preservation methodologies, coupled with the historic significance of the artifacts and the outstanding coopration among the several prestigious participants earned the Cenotaph Project the Washington DC Mayor's Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation- Stewardship Catagory in 2009.
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