Dorgan Seeks Cemetery Funding

Posted July 3, 2003 at 5:41pm

The Congressional Cemetery could get a boost from Congress as a nonprofit group gears up for a $40 million fundraising campaign to renovate the historic Southeast D.C. site.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) is asking his colleagues to set aside $3.3 million for renovations to the cemetery’s roads in the fiscal 2004 appropriations process.

“Other than relatively small and very infrequent federal dollars, government support ended many decades ago and the cemetery has fallen into disrepair,” Dorgan said in a June 27 speech on the Senate floor. “It is a rather forlorn place, as a matter of fact.”

Dorgan led a push in fiscal 2002 that netted the cemetery a $1 million gift in the the legislative branch spending bill. Those funds, provided to the cemetery through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, are being used to complete a historical landscape and resources study.

Preliminary estimates from that report show that costs for the restoration could reach $30 million to $40 million, said Linda Harper, chairwoman of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery’s executive committee.

“This is the logical first step in this process,” Harper said. “We’ve approached it in a very methodical and comprehensive way. We know now because of the study what our needs are and what the priorities are. …

“We intend to stop putting Band-Aids on things and to start fixing it, and fixing it requires big dollars because it’s been neglected for so long that the repairs now are huge repairs,” she said.

Although owned by Christ Church on G Street Southeast, the cemetery is run by the nonprofit preservation association.

The renovation will focus on soil stabilization, repairing grave markers and monuments, upgrading utilities systems and repairing and maintaining the gate house (which houses the visitors center and library) and other buildings.

Harper said the 33-acre cemetery also will become home to a new maintenance building with its own conservation laboratory for on-site repairs.

“Our hope is that that conservation lab will be something that colleges and universities can use for their materials conservation students, so that we have an active ongoing relationship with colleges and universities for intern programs,” Harper said.

An existing building will be transformed into a small interpretation center and will house restrooms that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Several informational signs will also be installed in the cemetery.

“It’s really nuts to bolts in terms of the care and maintenance of the property,” Harper said.

While the study focused primarily on maintenance issues, the fundraising program will also provide money for a program endowment.

“We are in the process of beginning to look at a full-blown capital campaign. Within that campaign we will add dollars for ongoing interpretive programs,” Harper said.

In addition to Congressional appropriations, the group plans to target corporate, foundation and individual donations.

“We know that this is a huge project and it’s going to take time,” Harper said.

Ideally, the association will raise half of the $40 million budget by the cemetery’s 2007 bicentennial.

“In 2007, we want people to walk in and be proud that it is a site that holds a great deal of American history,” Harper said. “I think it’s that pride in heritage and patriotism that we want to really set forward and to really say this is a site that’s important to the country and it deserves to be fixed.”

The association will use the bicentennial of the War of 1812 as a way to raise the remaining funds.

“We know that there is interest in the District for a fairly large celebration around the War of 1812 and, of course, the burning of Washington,” Harper said.

Since the cemetery’s creation in 1807, more than 60,000 people have been buried there, including 67 Members of Congress. Many cenotaphs, or empty tombs, memorialize Members who died in office but are buried elsewhere, including former President John Quincy Adams (Federalist) and Sens. John Calhoun (D-S.C.) and Henry Clay (Whig-Ky.).

The association received $100,000 in the fiscal 2003 omnibus spending bill for restoration of the cemetery’s fence and its public vault, which is currently under way.