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Preservation Project

Congressional Cemetery Vaults Get Facelifts

When the Public Vault in the Congressional Cemetery was completed in 1834, it was described in local papers as being “surrounded by a neat iron railing, its front built of freestone, the door of iron, and the area within the railing ornamented with beautiful shrubs.”

Today, the vault that has housed the remains of three former presidents seems a ghost of its original form. The iron is corroding, a door has fallen off and the mortar has turned into sand. The fence is gone, the shrubbery is sparse and the facade is flaking off.

But with the help of $100,000 from Congress, the Public Vault and four others are in the midst of reconstructive surgery that began in May. The five vaults chosen for restoration — the Public Vault, the Coombe Vault, the Miller Vault, the Lambell Vault and the Winter Vault — were deemed most “in need of urgent attention to forestall imminent danger and or collapse,” according to a proposal by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery.

“The deterioration in recent years has been dramatic,” said Patrick Crowley, vice chairman of the association. “Six years ago when I started coming here these [vaults] were in decent shape.”

He further explained that “mortar has a lifespan and they all seem to have hit it at the same time.”

In its prime, the cemetery, located at 1801 E St. SE, boasted about 60 vaults, Crowley said. By the 1890s some vaults were already posing safety hazards and had to be taken down. The last removal was in the 1960s, and currently there are only 23 brick vaults standing.

The key to giving the cemetery vaults a proper facelift, according to restoration superintendent Darrel Isaacs, is to match them as closely as possible to the original structures.

For example, Isaacs uses the century-old lime and sand mixture employed before “they invented mortars and concrete,” he said.

“We figure, it’s lasted since the 1830s,” Isaacs added.

He also made sketches of the vaults before dismantling them to ensure that each brick is returned to its original location.

But the team of masons, subcontracted by Conservation Solutions Inc., the winning bidder for the project, has also uncovered some never-before-seen features of the vaults amid the century-old skeletons.

In the Coombe Vault, a 4-foot-high square brick structure built in 1828, Isaacs and his team discovered a drainage system.

“Whoever built this structure found a spring and built a system to deal with the water,” he said of the drain that descends an estimated 20 feet below the burial chamber.

The team has also found a gold upper denture with pearl teeth in the Coombe Vault, a remarkable acquisition for the time, considering “George Washington had wooden teeth,” Crowley said.

After removing the dirt and sod covering the top of the Miller Vault, likely built before 1825, the masons actually found another stone structure. Inside the rectangular brick wall, formerly filled to the top with dirt, Isaacs’ team uncovered a curved piece of stone similar to those on the Public, Lambell and Winter vaults.

“It was initially a vault with a stairway,” Crowley said. “At some point the family added” the rectangular brick wall. But, he added, no records of the vault exist, so little is known about its construction.

And Crowley said that history will not get a chance to speak for itself.

“We have no plans to look inside the vault,” he said of the doorless structure. “There’s no structural reason to open it.”

But the team will venture into the Winter Vault when it begins restoration later this summer.

“It will be real interesting to see what’s inside there,” Crowley said.

Built in 1859 for William Winter, a marble contractor of the 1850s Senate and House wing extensions of the Capitol and the Old Patent Office, the vault contains the remains of 12 individuals about whom little is known. Listed in “fair to poor condition,” according to the proposal, Isaacs estimated it would take five to six weeks to restore.

This summer’s restoration is part of a larger project aimed to revamp the cemetery by its 200th anniversary in 2007. But Crowley admitted that it could take until 2012 and as much as $30 million to get the famous burial ground in “decent shape.”

Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) spearheaded the effort to fund the five-vault facelift. He proposed the idea in the 107th Congress.

“The Congressional Cemetery is badly in need of repair,” Farr said in a statement. “Some of the great citizens of our nation and the District of Columbia, along with veterans of every war from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam, have been buried in the cemetery. … Of course, this was only a start. I hope my colleagues will consider granting further funds to repair this historic facility.”

Walking through the overgrown grass on a hot sunny day, among the vast array of memorials of great leaders from the past, Crowley beamed with pride.

“We are not going to make it brand new,” he said with excitement, “the idea is to simply preserve what’s here.”