'A Colonial gem': Portland Planning Board OKs plan to preserve Eastern Cemetery

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PORTLAND — After several months of effort, a community group’s master plan for the preservation of Eastern Cemetery is ready for the City Council.

After a public hearing Tuesday, the Planning Board unanimously passed a recommendation that the City Council adopt a plan spearheaded by Spirits Alive, a neighborhood group focused on protecting the cemetery at the base of Munjoy Hill.

City officials praised Spirits Alive and the plan for their thoroughness.

“It’s the oldest burial ground in the city and really, given the sensitivity of the landscape and now with the presence of a really eager and active friends group, it was really appropriate to have a master plan,” city historic preservation manager Deborah Andrews said at the hearing.

The master plan is necessary, said Barbara Hager, a former Spirits Alive president and the chairwoman of its master plan committee, because the cemetery, well past its days as an active burial ground, has been largely neglected in recent years.

At the same time, what was once thought of as “the old cemetery” has become a legitimate historic monument, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a Historic Landscape by the city.

“This is a Colonial gem,” Hager said.

“Everyone really seems to be in agreement that this is a piece of property worth preserving,” Planning Board Chairwoman Carol Morrissette said.

But the burial ground has fallen into disrepair, the victim of vandals and the absence of family plot caretakers.

As much as 50 percent of the cemetery’s original headstones have disappeared over the years, Hager said. Those that remain are frequently in disarray, broken or listing dangerously. 

Furthermore, the city would not allocate sufficient resources to preserve the cemetery without a master plan in place, Hager said.

The plan recommended by the Planning Board has been in the works since at least June 2010, when Spirits Alive requested proposals from consulting firms to conduct a study of Eastern Cemetery and its preservation needs. The group hired the Chicora Foundation, a South Carolina-based consulting firm that specializes in historic cemetery preservation, in July 2010.

Chicora researched the grave yard’s history and compiled a 158-page document. Spirits Alive brought the plan to the Department of Public Services for input, and after getting approval from the city’s Historic Preservation Board, the Planning Board first saw the report in late February.

The finished master plan is unique, Hager said, in part because it recommends how to best preserve the cemetery and lays out the protocol for doing so. Recommendations are prioritized in the report, with some listed as “critical issues” of immediate importance, and others as “significant” and “ongoing” issues of lesser importance.

The plan outlines best practices for vehicle and pedestrian access, security, and monument and headstone conservation, among other things.

The plan also provides the most comprehensive summary to date of Eastern Cemetery’s history, Hager said. Chicora drew from more than 80 historical and city documents dating back as far as 1847 to form the plan, and the plan includes a 42-page section of pure historical background.

The chapter alludes to the changing role of the cemetery throughout the city’s history, as it morphed from a private burial ground, where Portland’s earliest settlers were likely interred in the 1600s, to a public cemetery. The oldest known marked grave dates to 1717, and over the next century and a half, sections of the graveyard were dedicated to the city’s Quaker community, and to its African American population.

The cemetery, the research team found, may have been damaged when the city was attacked and burned by a British fleet in 1775. City officials were both relieved and disheartened to discover that acts of vandalism have been recorded at Eastern Cemetery since 1816.

With budget season looming, it is unlikely that the Eastern Cemetery plan will make it to a City Council vote before May or June, said Troy Moon, the Public Services Department’s environmental programs and open space manager, who was Spirits Alive’s primary City Hall contact throughout the draft process.

For Hager and the approximately 40 active members of Spirits Alive, the wait of just a few months will be worth it.

In a sense, she said, the real work – repairing fences and broken headstones, reintroducing the public to the cemetery, and ensuring that the cemetery most closely associated with Portland’s birth retains a place of honor – is yet to begin.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow Andrew on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

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Headstones have toppled or broken throughout the Eastern Cemetery, not all due to natural causes. About 50 percent of the cemetery’s original headstones have disappeared over time, said Barbara Hager, master plan chairwoman for the Spirits Alive community group.

The Portland Planning Board recommended on Tuesday that the City Council adopt a master plan for preserving Eastern Cemetery, located at the foot of Munjoy Hill. Eastern Cemetery, the city’s oldest burial ground, is the last of the three major historical cemeteries to get the master plan treatment, which allows the city and volunteer organizations to focus resources on preserving it from further decay.

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