When you visit Oakland Cemetery over the next few months, you may be less likely to see the restoration crew around the grounds. Usually spotted somewhere near the John Deere Gator loaded with shovels, pry bars, chisels, hammers, mortar and the occasional cup of coffee, our preservation-minded work crew may appear to some to have entered a winter hibernation phase. I can assure you, though, the team hasn’t spent the last few months loading building up its fat stores.
If you make your way to the historic “work area” of the cemetery where the greenhouse, carriage house, boiler room and former stables are located, you will probably find them —and they’re most certainly not sleeping! In fact, the small workshop is usually at its busiest this time of year.
Why? Think of the expression, “as slow as molasses in wintertime.” No, not the crew! When the temperature drops below 45 degrees or so, it becomes very difficult to work with many of the materials that we rely on when we carry out restoration projects. The cold weather makes them harder to properly mix and apply. These are things like historic mortars, stone patching materials, and epoxies. So, throughout the fall we assemble a list of projects that a) require specific repairs that can only be done when temperatures are relatively warm, and b) can be moved indoors.
Perfect candidates are broken urns, small statues, headstones, and cradling. We take precaution to make sure we keep track of where exactly we remove the objects, so that they can be returned to their homes. This kind of work is necessary for the restoration of the cemetery, and gives our crew a chance to stay warm in the process.
Next time you’re here on a cold day, seek us out behind the greenhouse – we’d be happy to talk to you about what we’re doing!
Neale Nickels is Historic Oakland Foundation’s interim director of preservation.