It was anything but peaceful at the Grove Street Cemetery Proprietors’ annual meeting at the Graduate Club, an event made open to the public for the first time Tuesday evening.
Before the standing committee of the proprietors and a crowd of nearly 90 New Haven residents, School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 unveiled architectural drawings of the proposed alterations to the cemetery wall. The heated question-and-answer that followed turned into a forum for concerned citizens to voice their anger at the proposal to replace sections of the wall along Prospect Street with iron fencing. The 11-member standing committee has ultimate authority to approve any proposed changes to the property, though G. Harold Welch Jr., the president of the standing committee, said that no decision would be made in the immediate future.
A dozen members of the New Haven Preservation Trust, the New Haven Urban Design League and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation were present at the event. Anstress Farwell GRD ’78, the president of the New Haven Urban Design League, publicly presented a petition of 450 signatures to the proprietors opposing the alterations.
The proposal’s sponsor, Charles Ellis ’59, who introduced Stern, first laid out the rationale behind his suggestion to substitute 145 feet of the cemetery’s sandstone wall with iron fences. He said he hoped that the changes would create an inviting and open atmosphere to attract visitors to the cemetery. Ellis, a former Yale Corporation fellow who is married to University Secretary and Vice President Linda Lorimer, said he alone was responsible for the proposal and objectors should not blame Yale University.
“I thought it would be great if I could do something useful for the community of New Haven,” he said. “It’s just me. No one from Yale mentioned any ideas to me.”
Stern, whose New York firm compiled photographs of the cemetery and created the architectural drawings, gave an hour-long PowerPoint presentation that translated Ellis’ proposal into images. While critiquing the current state of the cemetery, he reminded the audience that property has gone through many changes throughout the past two centuries.
“I think the change to the wall is a modest proposal,” he said. “It can be reversed if we wanted to.”
Twice when Stern suggested that opening up the wall would make the pedestrian walkway along Prospect Street more inviting, he was interrupted with disapproving interjections from the audience. In response, he added that only 5 percent of the wall would be removed if the standing committee votes for the proposal.
In addition to cutting away three segments of the wall, Stern’s drawings showed three landscaping alterations: adding low shrubbery along the sidewalk, replacing the current cobra street lamps with traditional Yale-style lampposts and planting elm trees along the outer edge of the sidewalk.
“In my opinion, it’s not breaking the sacred trust between 1840 and now,” he said.
He was greeted by light applause at the end of his presentation.
Although critics in the audience voiced strong opposition to the removal of the wall, several expressed approval of the new landscaping plans Sterns introduced.
During the question-and-answer section of the meeting, citizens came forward with emotional testimonies.
Lori Ann Brass, a freelance writer from Woodbridge, Conn., who buried her husband Lawrence Brass in the cemetery this spring, said the proposed changes will harm the peaceful environment of the cemetery. She recounted an anecdote of how she and her husband, who was then sick with lung cancer, drove by the cemetery three months before his death in March 2009.
“He was so delighted that I chose this space for him,” she said. “It felt safe to him. The idea that passerby can peek in feels like a sort of violation.”
Other attendees continued to implicate that the University was ultimately behind the expansion.
Connecticut State Representative Patricia Dillon, a Democrat from New Haven, who lingered in the back of the audience, did not hold back her passionate opinion.
“It’s not a Yale property. It’s a community property,” she shouted. “I don’t think it’s good for relations.”
During the middle of the question-and-answer session, Farwell took an opportunity to present the petition to Welch, the committee’s president. Stern stepped aside as she approached the microphone to speak on behalf of all the signatories and historical preservation trusts involved in the petition. Her short speech ended with warm applause from much of the audience.
Stern had trouble recovering the podium as the meeting slowly moved from question-and-answer to a free forum. Nancy Ahern of the New Haven Preservation Trust read letters from the community and the entirety of John Scrudato’s ’11 Sept. 28 guest column in the News titled “Preserve Grove Street Cemetery” in an effort to sway the proprietors.
John Herzan, the preservation services officer for the New Haven Preservation Trust, said he was pleased that all sides of the argument were heard in the meeting. While he disagreed with Stern, he thought the architect genuinely believed the alternation would be a good idea.
“His landscape and lighting ideas are wonderful,” he said. “But I have a difficult time understanding the opening up of the wall.”
The standing committee of the proprietors held a second private meeting following the event.