‘Secret’ Congressional Cemetery Is Turning 200

Posted May 9, 2007 at 4:56pm

On a recent Saturday, Michele Pagan stood in front of a few of her neighbors with a shovel, pummeling some flower beds at Congressional Cemetery. Amid the tombstones and monuments of the 200-year-old burial ground, she taught the volunteers how to cut the roots of pot-bound inkberries and where to spread new dirt in a freshly dug hole.

At the end of a three-hour session, hollies and perennials bordered the cemetery’s entrance and new sedum surrounded a nearby public vault — once the temporary home of the body of Dolley Madison. It’s slow going for the dozen or so gardeners determined to add spring color to the 34-acre cemetery in Southeast Washington, D.C., but their efforts demonstrate how far the cemetery has come since just 10 years ago, when vandalism and weeds overshadowed its history.

“For the longest time, this was so endangered and dangerous, you wouldn’t even come near here,” said Joyce Palmer, a nearby resident and cemetery volunteer who remembers when defaced tombstones and late-night drug deals were common.

But now, the cemetery has hundreds of volunteers who help keep up the tombstones, landscaping and archives, plus a few federal and local grants to pay the bills. Volunteers and residents will celebrate their successes — and try to drum up more interest in the cemetery — at a May 19 festival celebrating the 200th anniversary of the cemetery’s opening.

“We sort of think of ourselves as the best-kept secret,” said Linda Harper, chairwoman of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, which manages the site. “I mean, try to take a cab to Congressional Cemetery. They have no idea what it is.”

But in the 1800s, the cemetery was the period’s Arlington Cemetery, serving as the burial ground for Members of Congress, public figures and laborers alike. More than 70 Representatives and 19 Senators lie there today, and more are honored with memorial cenotaphs. It’s also the final resting place of former Vice President Eldridge Gerry — of gerrymander fame — and Robert Mills, who designed the Washington Monument.

That history was buried under crime and uncut grass until 1997, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the cemetery one of the 11 most endangered sites in the country. The designation kick-started an effort to restore the cemetery, making it a safe place for residents to wander and learn about the city’s history. Now, 10 years later, the cemetery’s volunteers will be able to celebrate 200 years of history along with the more recent 10 years of revitalization.

“I think it’s an interesting coincidence that happened because it’s really given us a mark to look at,” Harper said. “It is truly amazing what has been accomplished in the last 10 years.”

Among the accomplishments: restored stones, a manicured lawn, a new drainage system and close to zero crime. Visitors will be able to see it all at the bicentennial, where volunteers will give guided tours, bands will give performances, and dressed-up interpreters will mimic some of the cemetery’s inhabitants.

Volunteers say the bicentennial marks the cemetery’s “critical mass,” where it has gathered enough attention and money to be financially secure for the foreseeable future.

“We’re getting some awfully powerful indications that people like us,” Palmer said.

On the weekends, the cemetery is certainly active. Visitors stroll and sit on the cemetery’s hills, some unwittingly perching atop unmarked graves. Dogs frequently run throughout the grounds, enjoying the freedom at one of the few places they can be off-leash. And volunteers are constantly sprucing up the place, whether it’s the Garden Corps planting bulbs or the Dozen Decent Docents practicing their walking tours.

But some say the cemetery still needs help. On a short walk around the property on a recent Sunday, Pagan found dead flowers, neglected graves and trampled plants. Weeding the gardens and keeping up the landscape is hard to do when most of the workers are volunteers, Pagan said. The association has restored only a few hundred tombstones out of the 18,000 that dot the property. And the four paid employees are only part-time — and two are paid through grants.

“The people who volunteer here are really dedicated,” Pagan said, “but they just can’t do it all.”

A lack of funds over the years has forced the cemetery to be creative. Unlike most historic sites, the cemetery allows off-leash dogs to run around at their leisure. In return, their owners collectively pay about $80,000 a year, enough to cover the expense of mowing and tending the lawn. Other money comes from federal and local grants, including an endowment set up by Congress in 1998. In the past few years, more and more money has come through the door. Congressional appropriations are paying for new roads and drainage systems, and the Veterans Affairs Department is taking on the task of refurbishing the more than 160 cenotaphs.

It’s this kind of history that convinced Joan Kirchner, communications director for Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), to become a docent and give introductory tours to visitors. On a recent Saturday, Kirchner joined a few other docents for a practice run of their tours, which will debut on May 19. The tours span from introductory circuits to more specialized subjects, such as “Men of Adventure.” With more than 50,000 people buried at the cemetery, there is a wealth of history to trudge through. The docents, led by Palmer, have been studying and practicing since the winter, sometimes giving each other tours through the snow. Their framed pictures hang on the walls of the guard house, now used as a center for the volunteers’ research.

It’s just one more group among many at the cemetery — others do stone rubbings, research graves and map out the grounds.

“It has become much more known to people, and there’s an endless variety of people involved,” said Alice Norris, a member of the association’s board. “Every time I go, there is some other group of people that have organized and are doing something.”

The land is technically owned by the Episcopal Christ Church; however, the association holds the lease and manages the nondenominational cemetery, and the church doesn’t donate any funds. The association’s success in raising funds can be seen in just the past few years. Last year, it pulled in about $635,000 (not including Congressional appropriations), a significant jump from the $252,000 made in 2004 and the $510,000 made in 2005. Grants have increased, as well as membership fees. An endowment set up by the National Trust and helped by Congressional matching grants also keeps growing; it now has $600,000 in its coffers. Soon, the association hopes to hire a full-time executive director.

“I am amazed that such a small organization gets so many in-kind contributions,” said Tabitha Almquist, a member of the association’s board and chief of staff for the president of the National Trust. “It’s just amazing how far they’ve come.”