Preservation Alert! - Save the Grove St. Cemetery Wall

A proposed plan that would demolish sections of the Grove Street Cemetery’s stone wall a long Prospect Street and fill the gaps with wrought-iron fencing would harm the cemetery’s historic character, say the New Haven Preservation Trust, the New Haven Urban Design League, and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

Robert Stern, dean of the Yale School of Art and Architecture, will present drawings his firm has made showing the proposed changes at the annual meeting of the Proprietors of Grove Street Cemetery, which will be held at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 6, in the Graduate Club, 155 Elm Street. Proprietors are those who own burial plots in the cemetery or are the heirs of people buried there.

The Trust strongly encourages all Proprietors in oppostion to the plan to attend this meeting. Those who are not Proprietors, but who would like to write letters in opposition to the plan, can contact the Trust office at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) for more information. In addition, the Trust has partnered with the Urban Design League to form an online petition. It may be signed here.

The controversial proposal has been put forth by Charles Ellis, a Yale alumnus, former Yale Corporation member and the husband of Yale Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer. Ellis, a member of the 11-member Standing Committee (directors) of the cemetery Proprietors, denies that he is acting on behalf of the university, which shortly plans to build two new residential colleges adjacent to the cemetery on a site between Sachem and Prospect streets and the Farmington Canal.

Originally called the New Burying Ground, the cemetery opened in 1797 as the first public, non-sectarian cemetery in the country. By the 1830s, its original wooden fence was deteriorating and failing to keep out vandals and those who would use the cemetery as a thoroughfare. A fundraising effort yielded $25,000 to build a new wall, an amount sufficient to erect the elegant wrought-iron fence along Grove Street and build an 8-foot wall of Connecticut red sandstone on the other three sides. The distinctive stone wall, built from 1841 to 1845, was designed by sculptor Hezekiah Augur. The Egyptian Revival stone entrance, designed by Henry Austin, was built from 1845 to 1848 in a complementary style.

In 1997 the cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and in 2001 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. The history of the cemetery, the hundreds of old gravestones, the many luminaries buried there and the stunning architecture of the entrance, wrought-iron fence and stone wall all were cited in the historic designation process. The cemetery is one of only nine National Historic Landmarks in New Haven.

Protecting landmark sites from “improvement” is one of the central advocacy functions of the New Haven Preservation Trust. Among the earliest landmark designations given by the Trust, the cemetery is a unique and sacred space which should not be modified.

“It is central to our mission to protect our Landmark Plaque properties,” noted Pedro Soto, president of the Trust. “The wall has done its job well for more than 160 years, blocking out the clamor of the city and allowing the cemetery to remain a sanctuary of peace and tranquility.”