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Nestled to the east of Capitol Hill near the banks of the Anacostia River is the Congressional Cemetery.
Founded before the Civil War, the cemetery is the final burial place for a number of former members of Congress, Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices — even a Founding Father. Well-known people buried there include FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover; military composer John Philip Sousa; military officer Joseph Gilbert Totten, for which Fort Totten is named; and Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and from whose name the term gerrymandering is derived.
A National Historic Landmark, Congressional Cemetery is also a staple for dog walkers in the neighborhood, whose generosity helps keep up the space, as many of those interred there no longer have family or trusts to fund operating costs.
But upkeep of a historic landmark is costly, and more money is needed for it.
Thus, Paul K. Williams, president of the cemetery, applied for a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which, along with American Express, is hosting its eighth annual Partners in Preservation challenge.
The challenge has identified 24 historic sites around the Washington metropolitan area and calls for people in the D.C. region and from across the country to vote for what they feel is the most deserving historic site to receive a portion of $1 million to go toward renovation projects.
“These are dollars that can be used for brick-and-mortar work,” said Rob Nieweg, D.C. field director for the NTHP, who added that the Partners in Preservation challenge has donated $15 million to historic sites across the country from past challenges, funded by American Express.
Other sites that are part of the challenge include Mount Vernon, the National Cathedral and Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, as well as some lesser-known historic sites around the region including the George Mason Memorial, the Kennel at Aspin Hill Memorial Park in Silver Spring, Md., and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
“When you think about places like Congressional Cemetery and Sixth & I and Meridian Hill Park and the Abner Cloud House, many of these places are part of the fabric of our community,” Nieweg said. “We may walk by them every day and not think that sustained public support is necessary” for their preservation.
For Williams, who helps run Congressional Cemetery, the money would mean that Mausoleum Row in the cemetery will get needed renovations, and he said that he’s thus far excited about the support for the cemetery.
“It was somewhat intimidating when we saw Mount Vernon and National Cathedral on the list,” Williams said. “But we have a smaller and more loyal group of friends and dog walkers [who support us], and so we’re finding that we’re increasing slow and steady, whereas the big boys started out with a big punch.”
Sixth & I, which not only serves as a house of worship but also hosts many political speakers and authors of interest to the Capitol Hill community, was among the most popular on the partnership’s website.
Jackie Leventhal, director of cultural programming and communications for the synagogue, said its chunk of the funding would go toward renovating the stained-glass windows that serve as a centerpiece of the 105-year-old structure.
“The window renovation has to happen, because some of them have small holes in them and some of them are buckling,” Leventhal said. “I think no matter the type of event, whether it’s an author or a concert or a political panel or a Shabbat service, the windows are just the centerpiece and an inspiring backdrop to what happens in that room.”
Ultimately, Nieweg said, aside from allocating much-needed renovation funding to culturally significant and community-oriented sites across the D.C. area, the contest will help raise awareness that historic sites need community help to be maintained.
“We made a special effort to select historic places that reflect the diversity of heritage in this region. ... We’ve really got a broad range that not only reflects their local and national heritage but also reflects how varied the preservation movement is today,” Nieweg said. “We are really pleased.”
To vote for your favorite historic site on the list, go to preservedmv.com and announce your support of a site on social media by using the Twitter hashtag assigned to the location. Voting is open until midnight on May 10, and the winners will be announced at an event May 13 at the Decatur House.