Cemetery wall alteration plan withdrawn

The proposal to alter the walls of the Grove Street Cemetery has been withdrawn, the cemetery’s governing committee said Tuesday.

Ending a six-month debate over the walls’ future, the committee’s president, G. Harold Welch Jr., in a statement issued Tuesday formally rebuked the plan offered last spring by committee member Charles Ellis ’59. Ellis had proposed to replace sections of the cemetery wall along Prospect Street with iron fencing, citing the desire to beautify the pedestrian route along the street.

“After discussing this idea with members of the Standing Committee and Mr. Ellis, particularly concerning possible noise intrusions, [Ellis] has withdrawn this proposal,” the statement reads. “We are most grateful for his proposal and for his willingness to fund the same. It is hoped that we can now concentrate on improving the Prospect Street exterior space with lighting and plantings.”

A former Yale Corporation fellow, Ellis is married to University Secretary and Vice President Linda Lorimer, and the alterations to the wall he proposed were drawn up by Yale School of Architecture Dean Robert Stern ARC ’65. The proposal called for the replacement of sections of the historic wall along Prospect Street with iron fencing, and was linked with the University’s plan to build two new residential colleges on the Prospect triangle.

Ellis said his decision to withdraw the reconstruction plan came after he heard the overwhelming opposition to it, which was voiced Oct. 6 during a lengthy and heated discussion among the members of the standing committee, New Haven residents and local preservationists.

“We had a wonderful meeting with the committee of owners of the Grove Street Cemetery,” proprietor and former Yale professor Curtis Patton said Tuesday night. “Charles Ellis presented what he had proposed with great eloquence and passion. Of course, this was a burning issue, and our opinions expressed themselves. But the committee did not make a decision — Ellis’ decision to withdraw the proposal was his own.”

Anstress Farwell GRD ’78, the president of the New Haven Urban Design League, said Ellis’ decision to withdraw his proposal was a graceful one and added that, in her opinion, he had listened to the proprietors, the families involved and people who care about the cemetery as a cultural landmark.

“This was the appropriate decision,” Farwell said.

Though Ellis said he believes his original proposal was a “great idea,” he emphasized that he had never intended to push his own views on other committee members.

“If people don’t like [the plan,] it’s all right,” he said. “It was great that other people had a lot of thoughtful opinions to express when they came out to the meeting.”

As the creator of the anti-alteration petition, Farwell said she had initially been concerned about the cultural implications of making changes to the cemetery’s wall. However, she stressed that in the long run, Ellis’ proposal could serve as a necessary first step in improving the landscape and the Prospect Street pedestrian thoroughfare that borders it.

“Even if [the supporters of altering the walls] misidentified the problem, the street could certainly use improvement,” Farwell said. “I’m very glad that the Grove Street Cemetery is not owned by the University because public opinion would have made no difference at all.”

As it stands, the Grove Street Cemetery wall will not be altered any time soon, but plans for improving the surrounding landscaping are being considered, Patton said. Moreover, any superficial alterations to the cemetery that come up in the future are not likely to cause the sort of heated discussion that Ellis’ proposal did last week, Patton said.

In 2000, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated Grove Street Cemetery as a National Historic Landmark.

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