What Is A ‘Stabilized Relic’?

Volume 49, Issue 3 :: By David Wessel :: Photographs Courtesy of ARG Conservation Services

Many congregations and cemetery associations own historic assets that play an important role in the organization’s mission, offering not just ornate architecture but also a sense of timelessness and spiritual consolation. Caring for these assets on nonprofit budgets, however, is often a challenge. If years of deferred maintenance have taken their toll, it is not always financially possible to carry out a full restoration. There is another option, however. We worked with Cypress Lawn Cemetery Association in Colma, California, to develop a cost-effective approach that halted a monument’s deterioration and allowed its grandeur to once again serve as a consolation and invitation to contemplation for mourners and visitors alike until funds are available for a full restoration. The approach is to create a “stabilized relic.” Variations on this approach have been used to preserve ancient ruins, sites of archaeological interest, and historic churches. For example, just this year it was announced that the 130-year-old St. Patrick’s Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, would raise money for stabilization efforts while it gathers funding for a complete (and far more expensive) restoration.

Before and after of the de la Montanya Monument, disintegration of which was halted as a ‘stabilized relic.’

Before and after of the de la Montanya Monument, disintegration of which was halted as a ‘stabilized relic.’

The Cypress Lawn Cemetery Association, founded in 1892, was one of the earliest and grandest examples of the garden cemetery movement on the West Coast. The landscape was designed to provide a peaceful place for people to visit their loved ones. The association is organized as an IRS Code Section 501(c)(13) nonprofit corporation that owns a for-profit funeral services company. Cypress Lawn’s cemetery endowment care trust fund provides money to pay for improvement and maintenance of the property, but it does not offer enough income to meet all of the cemetery’s restoration and preservation needs.

Detail of condition of monument top before stabilization took place.

Detail of condition of monument top before stabilization took place.

One part of the solution was to create the Cypress Lawn Heritage Foundation, founded in 2000, which provides tours and lectures to the public as a public service and additional source of revenue. To maintain the private mausoleums, the descendants of the original owners contribute to an endowment fund. However, in some cases, the families have dispersed. This was the case with the de la Montanya Monument. Designed by Bernard J.S. Cahill and constructed in 1909, the de la Montanya Monument was one of the first monuments at Cypress Lawn and an integral part of the initial plan for the landscape. The private mausoleum was patterned after a three-stage Spanish Gothic tower in Burgos, Spain. It originally had Tiffany stained glass windows, but these were destroyed by an earthquake in the 1950s. The monument also occupies a prominent site in the cemetery, right next to Noble Chapel, the historic centerpiece for the cemetery and its primary source of revenue.

Selective demolition of the upper part of the monument made way for stabilization of remaining masonry.

Selective demolition of the upper part of the monument made way for stabilization of remaining masonry.

After a century, the ornate monument, carved from soft Colusa sandstone, had deteriorated significantly, particularly the upper portion. Damage from earthquakes and ivy, along with years of deferred maintenance, had left their mark. The wide flange beams and steel angles embedded in the sandstone had rusted and were pushing the structure apart from within. In these ways, the monument was challenged by deferred maintenance and lack of on-going attention to the fabric that plagues the facilities of many congregations struggling to preserve their older buildings.

The cemetery association’s initial solution was to shore up the monument temporarily and surround it with scaffolding to contain any loose masonry pieces that fell. However, this did not improve the aesthetic quality of the monument. The organization’s chief executive officer, Ken Varner, had hired our firm to create a historic resource report in order to gather information about Cypress Lawn’s buildings. At one point, while walking through the cemetery together, we stopped in front of the de la Montanya Monument. I suggested that there might be a solution other than leaving it as it was or paying for a full restoration. A third possibility was to preserve it as a “stabilized relic”: we would perform selective demolition, documentation, and stabilization that would obviate the need for scaffolding and keep the monument in a state of readiness until funds eventually became available for a full restoration.

Completed stabilized section of the monument’s upper portion; removed masonry has been stored in anticipation of a future complete restoration.

Completed stabilized section of the monument’s upper portion; removed masonry has been stored in anticipation of a future complete restoration.

The challenge was to determine what historic fabric could be saved and what would have to be removed because of instability. Due to the advanced state of the deterioration of the monument’s upper section, selective demolition was necessary to address life-safety issues and repair the deteriorated steel frame within the structure.

In addition to the selective demolition, any loose or cracked masonry that could be salvaged was stabilized by setting or pinning. We used threaded fiberglass rods, in conjunction with epoxy grout, to pin loose and unstable sandstone masonry to the structure’s existing stable masonry. To prevent moisture intrusion, all roofing and gutters were recoated; all failing mortar joints were removed and replaced with a compatible hydraulic lime pointing mortar.

After we documented all aspects of the monument, all material that we removed was stored in a covered location on the Cypress Lawn property. Permanent marking of each individual masonry unit, together with extensive photo and annotated drawing documentation, will allow the upper portion of the structure to eventually be restored to its original height.

This approach is very much in the European tradition: stabilized relics are common in Europe, especially in England, where beautiful ruins are cared for meticulously and enjoyed as ruins. To draw on this tradition was particularly appropriate for Cypress Lawn, given that the design of Noble Chapel was based on the design of St. Giles Church in Stoke Poges, England, where Thomas Gray wrote his famous 1751 poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”

Noble Chapel itself received a full renovation after a fire in the adjacent crematorium damaged the chapel. ARG Conservation Services removed layers of previous, piecemeal renovations, which had significantly compromised the interior, and brought the building back to its original character. With the chapel restored and the monument stabilized, bookings in the chapel have increased notably. People respond to the connection to history.

Building upon this work we are currently consulting St. Patrick’s Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth deemed the Victorian Gothic edifice, built between 1883 and 1885, unsafe. A full restoration is estimated to cost more than $3 million. However, the church’s restoration committee is raising money for a much smaller sum, $700,000 to $800,000, to carry out structural upgrades that would stabilize the steeple, bell tower, and main façade. This approach will allow the church to be used while fundraising efforts continue for the full restoration.

The incompleteness of a “stabilized relic” can even make the structure more evocative. The stabilization of the de la Montanya Monument provides an example of how deteriorated features, in this case sandstone, can be removed while still allowing the rest of the structure to serve its role for a spiritual community. Carrying out the stabilization in a thoughtful, well-conceived manner allows enough of the historic resource to remain so that the mind’s eye can complete the picture. In other words, stabilization can be done in a way that provides evidence of what was there originally, but is now gone, inspiring contemplation and providing a solution to fiscally challenged congregations.

David Wessel is CEO of ARG Conservation Services in San Francisco.