Tear down this wall?

Historical preservation groups oppose the proposal to cut away parts of the Grove Street Cemetery wall and replace them with fences.
Historical preservation groups oppose the proposal to cut away parts of the Grove Street Cemetery wall and replace them with fences. Photo by Baobao Zhang.

As the Proprietors of Grove Street Cemetery prepare to meet Oct. 6, controversy is already brewing over a proposal to alter the cemetery’s sandstone walls.

Three New Haven historical preservation groups are mounting an opposition to the proposed alterations, which would cut openings in the wall along Prospect Street and replace them with iron fences to make the route more pedestrian-friendly. The proposal, designed by School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, comes as the University is planning two new colleges — also being designed by Stern — next to the cemetery, though Stern denies that the University is involved with the alteration plans.

The groups — the New Haven Preservation Trust, the New Haven Urban Design League and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation — are arguing that the proposed alterations are insensitive to the cemetery’s history and will violate the sanctity of the space for visitors and mourners.

John Herzan, the preservation services officer for the New Haven Preservation Trust, said the removal of part of the wall would create several problems, among which is the damage that would be done to the structural integrity of the sandstone.

“There would be a lot more noise and traffic when you’re inside the cemetery,” Herzan added. “It’s going to change the nature of that sacred space if you have these openings.”

While Yale is not sponsoring the proposal, a February 2008 University report examining questions related to the creation of two new residential colleges called for the University to work with the cemetery’s standing committee in hopes of finding mutually agreeable changes. The report recommended adding a second gate on the north side of the cemetery and suggested that “a portion of the cemetery’s historic wall on Prospect Street be replaced with a beautiful wrought-iron face so as to open the cemetery to view and reduce the sense of a forbidding walled-off enclosure.”

But Anstress Farwell, the president of the New Haven Urban Design League, suggested that the walk along Prospect Street could be made more inviting without removing segments of the wall. She proposed alternatives such as planting more trees, expanding the grass areas between the sidewalk and road and providing “a few well-placed flood lights.”

Two weeks ago, the New Haven Urban Design League started an online petition to preserve the wall that had gathered 141 signatures as of press time.

The proposal has also garnered opposition from employees of the cemetery. William Cameron, the cemetery’s superintendent, said the property should be left untouched since it is a national historical landmark. He said he resented what he perceived to be Yale’s involvement.

“Yale doesn’t own this cemetery,” he said. “It kinda baffles me why they want to do this.”

But Stern, whose New York architecture firm is designing the two new residential colleges, said Yale has “nothing to do” with the proposal. Rather, he said, his firm is helping the trustees of the cemetery make a decision.

“We have been asked by some of these trustees to advise them on whether it might be possible to open up the cemetery wall along Prospect Street,” he said. “Our advice is not to tear down the entire wall.”

While the future of the cemetery wall has been an ongoing issue between Yale and New Haven preservation groups, he said, it is not “a Yale agenda.”

Still, the proposal’s sponsor, Charles Ellis ’59, is a former member of the Yale Corporation, a recipient of the Yale Medal and husband of University Secretary and Vice President Linda Lorimer. Ellis did not respond to requests for comment.

Of the seven Yale students interviewed, six said they objected to the proposal, saying they would find it disconcerting to see the gravestones while walking along Prospect Street. Nick Allen ’13 opposes the alteration on ethical grounds.

“Cemeteries are hallowed ground that once built shouldn’t be disturbed,” he said. “There are things in our society that have lasting spiritual value, and one of them is how we bury our dead.”

Kyle Briscoe ’10, an architecture major, suggested that rather than cutting openings in the wall, small changes to the route along Prospect Street, such as adding benches, lamp posts and flower boxes, could achieve the same effect.

The Proprietors of Grove Street Cemetery will make the final decision in regards to any changes to the property.

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