January 1, 2012

The Resurrection of Congressional Cemetery

Historic Capitol Cemetery Revived by Local Preservationists

  • By: Betsy Crosby

Twenty years ago, Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., was a no-man’s land two miles from the U.S. Capitol. With crack cocaine permeating the city and driving a sharp increase in violent crime, the historic cemetery had become a popular hangout for prostitutes and drug dealers. Salvagers spirited away urns and statuary. Self-styled satanic worshipers broke into burial vaults to steal remains. The resting place of the nation’s notable was almost past the point of no return.

But reports of Congressional’s demise were greatly exaggerated. Today, the cemetery grounds are frequented by dog walkers, gardeners, history buffs, artists, office workers, and tourists. Collapsed burial vaults have been restored, their contents properly identified and reinterred. Tombstones have been righted, roadways repaved, trees planted, and eyesores eliminated.

You can thank all five branches of the military. You can thank Congress. But most of all, you can thank the volunteers who realized that this cemetery is as much about the living as it is about the dead.

Congressional Cemetery is neither owned by Congress nor reserved for the legislature’s private use. Founded in 1807 by members of Christ Church, it acquired its popular name after the church offered 300 sites to the government for the burial of U.S. senators and representatives. Congress snapped up the offer and soon purchased hundreds more. The cemetery thereafter became the designated graveyard for military heroes and other national figures, including two vice presidents and a Supreme Court justice.

At first, Congress evidenced a sense of responsibility for its namesake and appropriated funds for the infrastructure, including a public vault that was used to hold, among others, First Ladies Dolley Madison and Louisa Adams until they could be interred elsewhere. Congress also tasked architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe with designing memorial markers, or cenotaphs, for each departed member who died in office.

From the beginning, the cemetery was a public burial ground rather than a private churchyard, and consequently evolved into a resting place for people of all faiths. Several Native American chiefs who died while visiting Washington are buried here. The cemetery’s pastoral setting overlooking the Anacostia River also made it popular with prosperous tradesmen and entrepreneurs, such as brothel owner Mary Hall, who liked the concept of being laid to rest with congressmen and cabinet members.

With the creation of Arlington National Cemetery in 1864 for the burial of military veterans, Congress began to lose interest in the Capitol Hill cemetery it had supported for so many years. Gradually, Congressional became primarily a resting place for local residents, among them John Philip Sousa and J. Edgar Hoover, both neighborhood boys.

By the 1970s, Christ Church, with its dwindling congregation, no longer had the funds to maintain a 35-acre cemetery. A Congressional bill proposed entrusting the National Park Service with the burial ground’s care, but estimating that it would take $10 million to put the cemetery right, Park Service officials turned it down, in part because it was still an active burial ground.

Jumping into the void, a group of private citizens formed the nonprofit Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery (HCC), which took over property management in 1976. The nonprofit faced overwhelming problems: broken monuments, crumbling vaults, and long-postponed repairs to the gatehouse and the 1903 chapel. Without funding for even a part-time staff, volunteers struggled to sustain their enthusiasm.

For several years, a changing cast of supporters worked to save Congressional, but eventually two volunteers, Patrick Crowley and Jim Oliver, stayed long enough to guide the cemetery’s turnaround. Working independently at first, they later joined forces on HCC’s board of directors, where each served as chairman.

Crowley first got involved in 1997, after he purchased a townhouse at 14th and C streets SE only to discover that turf wars between drug dealers were being waged all around him. Despite the obvious danger he was convinced the neighborhood retained enormous potential, particularly the gated cemetery at 18th and E, where his Saint Bernard could run free. He found other dog owners who, like him, refused to be intimidated by menacing interlopers.

“It was a lot more Wild West then,” he recalls. “You couldn’t see the tombstones because the grass was so high.” The dog walkers made it a part of their job in the morning to pick up hypodermic needles so that dogs and people wouldn’t step on them. “We would band together, four or five of us, and we would conspicuously walk by the drug dealers in their cars and let them know they were being watched,” says Crowley.

Most of the dealers eventually moved on, but the cemetery’s dilapidated appearance remained. “I kept asking, ‘Why don’t they clean this place up?’ The garbage wasn’t being collected, there were about a hundred dead trees, there was muck in the gutters ... I finally realized that there’s no management, there’s no staff, there isn’t anybody. If there’s no ‘they,’ then we have to do it.”

He began to buttonhole other dog walkers into helping him take down a dead tree or pay for the grass to be mowed. Soon he was asking them to join forces on a workday, to contribute toward repairs in the chapel, to participate in local parades, a festival, and a 5K run. The dog walkers formed a group called the K9 Corps, with membership fees and a yearly requirement of 12 hours of volunteer service. They instituted rules limiting when dogs could run free and required that all pet waste be picked up. Some members of HCC argued that preservation and dogs didn’t mix, but over time most realized that the presence of the dogs and their owners made the cemetery more secure day and night. Today 500 member families contribute more than $170,000 yearly to the K9 Corps, which pays for about a quarter of Congressional’s annual expenses. There’s a newsletter, an informative website (cemeterydogs.org), and a waiting list of 116 families.

In the late 1980s, Jim Oliver, then assistant manager of the House Republican Cloakroom on the Hill, found himself drawn to the cemetery because of its ties to congressional history. On a research mission, he struggled to find information in the incomplete card catalog in the gatehouse. Before he knew it, he had taken on the task of entering more than 55,000 names into a computer database.

Soon Oliver was manning the desk every Saturday, giving tours, supervising grave digging, and even personally digging smaller graves for ashes. He and his fellow volunteers struggled to make do with the minimal funding they received from an ancient endowment provided by Christ Church. “We were always short of funds, and no one knew anything about fundraising,” he says. They could afford to cut the grass (at a cost of $3,350) only three times a year, though it needed to be done every week in the spring. “It was like spitting into the ocean.”

Oliver remained disturbed by Congress’ lack of interest in what was essentially the first national cemetery. “Whatever value you place on Arlington, you should place on Congressional,” he says. “We have a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Elbridge Gerry. We have a number of Sons of the American Revolution. We have arguably the first casualty of the Mexican War and the last survivor.” Having once adopted Congressional Cemetery, Congress was now consigning it, once again, to orphan status.

Oliver made it his job to educate members of Congress about the cemetery, which led to some earmarks for assessment studies. Working in the Republican Cloakroom, he also got to know one of the producers of C-SPAN, to whom he soon began touting the cemetery’s virtues in hopes of some media coverage. Eventually Oliver’s efforts paid off, and a video depicting the cemetery and its desperate need for funds aired on July 5, 1997.

The video became a call to arms. The next weekend, unannounced, an officer from Andrews Air Force Base brought 100 airmen with lawnmowers and sickles and put them to work. The next month, an Army group from Fort Belvoir arrived to do the same. The following month, 1,000 service men and women and their families from all five military branches turned out, starting a Joint Service Day tradition that has become an annual event. Since then, Congressional’s neighbors from the Navy Yard and the Marine Barracks have sent Navy Seabees to build a watering system and a group of Marines to lift 1,000 sunken footstones.

The C-SPAN video and Congressional’s inclusion in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 1997 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places gave the cemetery both the legitimacy and the publicity it sorely needed. Sponsors such as the Casey Trees foundation came forward; individual bequests appeared like gifts from fairy godmothers; and local agencies, community groups, and interested individuals began to offer a hand. HCC grew savvy about fundraising, moving from bake sales to cocktail parties to grant writing.

But without a generous endowment, Congressional Cemetery’s future would never be secure. In 1999, the quiet campaign begun by Jim Oliver many years earlier produced solid results when Congress offered a $1 million endowment to match funds raised by HCC. The interest from this and a second congressional endowment issued in 2002 is slated for the cemetery’s ongoing maintenance and restoration costs. (The National Trust holds the endowments under an agreement with HCC and the Architect of the Capitol.) Site sales provide another source of funds. HCC has begun the painstaking process of reclaiming unused burial sites, and a future landscape plan includes a columbarium for ashes.

Today, HCC focuses on dramatizing the lives of those buried at the cemetery through walking tours, themed soirées, and concerts. “Our mission is to preserve the stones and the land, but it’s also about preserving the stories and making them come alive,” says Executive Director Cindy Hays. Most events are free to the public but often produce new supporters who want to volunteer, be a docent, buy a site, or donate funds.

Although some visitors question the propriety of scheduling events in a space meant for contemplation, Program Director Rebecca Boggs Roberts says it’s consistent with the 19th-century tradition of treating cemeteries as public parks: “It’s using this place and celebrating this place and keeping it remembered around living people the way it was intended.”

Betsy Crosby, a freelance writer in Atlanta, reports on the decorative arts, travel, and historic preservation.

Each year, America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places sheds light on important examples of our nation’s heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage.

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