ITHACA, N.Y. — The Ithaca City Cemetery predates the city itself, originating as a final resting place for a young settler headed west and slowly evolving into 17 acres of landscaped parkland where mourners and meanderers alike could take in the fresh air. Now more than a century after most of its inhabitants were interred, the cemetery will be rejuvenated.
Cornell University announced Tuesday that it will match the City of Ithaca’s $75,000 contribution to cemetery preservation and maintenance. The $150,000 investment follows years of advocacy by Historic Ithaca and the Friends of Ithaca City Cemetery volunteers and will go toward protecting the cemetery’s most vulnerable vaults and monuments.
“This is a gorgeous asset nestled right between Cornell University and Downtown Ithaca,” Mayor Svante Myrick said as the restoration project was announced Tuesday. He credited “the energy, passion and motivation of the Friends of Ithaca City Cemetery” with spurring the city to action, and thanked Cornell for joining the effort.
Situated between University Avenue to the west and Stewart Avenue to the east, the cemetery showcases shifts in aesthetics and politics since the late 18th century. The plot that initially served as the village burying ground was expanded into “Mount Repose” in the 1840s, reflecting both the rural cemetery movement’s push for bucolic burials and the village’s growing population. In the 1870s the parcel’s rambling gardens gave way to manicured lawns, reflecting a nationwide trend, and the cemetery was renamed Silvan Hills as prominent families constructed vaults and associations bought up group plots. It wasn’t until 1888, when all but one of the 12 vaults were complete and most of the plots were purchased, that the City of Ithaca was incorporated and took ownership of the cemetery.
The cemetery offers a material record of the city and nation’s tumultuous history, according to Christine O’Malley, Historic Ithaca preservation services manager. The markers of Revolutionary War veterans are still maintained by the Sons of the Revolution and local Union Soldiers are memorialized with the Grand Army of the Republic Monument. An unassuming, grassy field serves as the “potter’s field,” where the indigent were laid to rest.
After Tuesday’s ceremony, O’Malley led a group over to a notable headstone on the cemetery’s southern edge. Daniel Jackson, 1814-1889, “Born a Slave he followed the North Star to Freedom,” the marker reads.
“You think it’s just a gravestone, but really it’s a document. An archival document,” O’Malley said.
Throughout the cemetery, pieces of Ithaca’s history are exposed to the elements and impacts of passersby. Some older headstones, etched before more durable granite and the tools to carve it were available, have succumbed to natural erosion. Others have been bumped and battered by tree limbs and roots. Some have been damaged by vandalism, which O’Malley said is nothing new. In Cornell’s earliest years rowdy students routinely cut through what they called “the boneyard” on their way to the flats.
The vaults, too, are worse for the wear. Built into the hillside, they have borne the weight of earth and snow and rain while their mortar deteriorated and groundhogs burrowed below. About four years ago, the Esty family vault became the first to collapse.
Myrick acknowledged that over his first two terms and for decades past, “the city government was not doing everything it should for the city cemetery.”
Based on the results of a study commissioned by the city about a year and a half ago, the infusion of funds from the city and university will go toward shoring up vaults in addition to helping with maintenance of the burial plots spread throughout the cemetery. First on the list is the Alonzo Cornell vault, which houses the remains of several Cornell family members.
Joel Malina, Cornell vice president for university relations, said he was pleased the Cornell family vault would be a priority even though the university did not weigh in on which vaults should be repaired first. “So much a part of what Cornell is as a university is tied to our community,” he said. “When you think about that history, this in many ways is the embodiment of that history.”
O’Malley said the Cornell family vault is a good starting point for preservation because it is in urgent need of repair to prevent collapse, but will demand a manageable amount of work. In time, though, the Friends of Ithaca City Cemetery hope to spread resources to all the cemetery’s monuments, from the vaults of prominent families to the Firemen’s group plot and monument to the Temple Beth-El parcel, which is the only site still actively used for burials.
While the city and university investment will go toward major restoration projects, the city’s Parks and Forestry Division will continue regular upkeep with help from volunteers. Past cleanup days organized by the Friends of Ithaca City Cemetery have brought as many as 75 community members out to help, and youth members of Historic Ithaca’s Work Preserve summer team have helped with projects including landscaping and repairing grave markers.
The next community cleanup day is scheduled for 9:30 a.m., Sept. 8. Information will be posted to the Historic Ithaca Facebook page.
Featured image: Christine O’Malley leads a tour of the Ithaca City Cemetery. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)