Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hate the Gate?

Now that the blazing heat of summer is over (we hope!), it’s time for some tranquil fall Open Days at Tolomato Cemetery.  But the kick-off for the fall season will be a little different this year.

Have you ever walked along Cordova Street and wondered why beautiful, serene Tolomato Cemetery is caged behind a chain link and barbed wire fence?  Have you ever thought how much you hate that sagging gate that prevents you from taking a photograph of the stately trees and classic chapel? That’s going to change!


About a year ago, architect Don Crichlow drew up plans for the restoration of the early 20th century concrete wall and complete replacement of the fence and gate that have surrounded Tolomato Cemetery since the 1940s. In between the labors of restoring the Varela Chapel crypt and floor, TCPA members spent time getting bids from fencing companies and considering design solutions.


The new fence plans are finally ready to be unveiled to the public, and our next Open Day, Saturday, September 20, will be the big day.  We’ll be open from 11 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., as usual, and of course, everything will be free, as usual.  But it’s going to be special!


Visitors can have our regular tours and a chance to see the restoration work that was done in the Varela Chapel, but we’ll also have live music, refreshments, a silk-screener producing special Tolomato items, and presentations on the fence and the history of the fences and walls at Tolomato Cemetery.  Naturally, the centerpiece will be the rendering of the new fence and gate, which we hope to complete by next summer.


As you can see from the late 19th century photo above, the fence has looked even worse at times.  But after all these years, we want it to finally be as lovely as the rest of the cemetery - and to be something that makes St Augustine even more beautiful!  Come on September 20th and see for yourself.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Restored at last!

Today was an exciting day at Tolomato Cemetery. Janet Jordan and I went out to await the arrival of the restored stone that had covered the crypt in the Varela Chapel and has been off for restoration for several weeks (during which time the entire floor was retiled). Carl Halbirt, the City Archaeologist, came along to lend encouragement and get the first public viewing!

Marble Masters of Jacksonville, a wonderful, craftsman company, brought the stone back today and set it over the crypt in a matching marble “crib.”  They were able to remove most of the staining from it and gave it a low buff so that the beautiful stone and the lovely lettering of the inscription are shown to their greatest effect. They also installed new rings, made by an artisan in Georgia. Here they are moving it into the chapel…


And here it is, installed.


Below is the photo of the original 1854-55 installation. Fr. Varela died in early 1853, but it took several months to build the chapel and several months more for the Cuban builders to get the altar and the stone – probably Cuban marble – and the other decorative elements.  Fr. Varela was finally removed from his original burial place in the cemetery and reburied in the completed chapel in 1855.

Varela Stone 1854-1

The above photo is from a book printed in Cuba in 1924, and is not extremely clear. But you can et the general idea and you can see how close the new stone is to the old one and what a beautiful job this company did on recreating it from this photo.  More later on marble, restoration, and various other things. But for now, enjoy the stone – and come out to see it for yourself when you’re next in St Augustine.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Phase 1 is done!

The slow and multi-phased process of restoring the floor and the stone in the Varela Chapel has gotten one step closer to completion.


Here you see the old mahogany altar on the new travertine floor.  The original floor was this color and its builders referred to it as “coquina,” although it was probably a type of tabby, that is, blocks made out of concrete or mortar and crushed coquina. This type of block is now used mostly for outside paving, but it was used for flooring for buildings of this type in St Augustine. It was referred to as a terraplen floor, or earth-filled floor, and in this case it is set on a bed of sand.  When it used inside, it could be softened with a carpet or rugs, and the contemporary accounts tell us that there was a “rich carpet” in the chapel to cover this surface.


The next step is replacing the crypt stone, which is still off for its restoration treatment.  But in the meantime, you can see how much lighter and brighter the travertine – beautifully set by tile setter Joe Roddy, above, in what is called the “French pattern” of different size tiles – has made this space. Better yet, come and see it yourself, since we’ll be open this Saturday, July 19.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Varela Stone Moves (for awhile)

As regular Tolomato visitors and readers of this blog know, the chapel at Tolomato Cemetery was originally designed in 1853 as a funeral chapel and the mausoleum of Fr. Felix Varela, a Cuban born priest who was brought up and died in San Augustine and is now on the way to canonization.
He was originally buried in the crypt in 1855, having first been buried immediately after his death elsewhere in the cemetery next to his aunt, Rita Morales, while the chapel was being built.  Below is a photo of the chapel probably taken in the 1920s.


In 1876, the first bishop of St. Augustine, Bishop Augustin Verot, was buried in the vault next to the bones of Fr. Varela.

Fr. Varela had taught at the seminary of San Carlos in Havana and had written a great deal about Cuban politics. He was a great hero to the Cubans in their struggle for independence. After Cuba's liberation from both Spain and its occupation by the United States, Cuban representatives came and reclaimed the remains of Fr. Varela.  They placed them in a marble urn at his former seminary, now part of the University of Havana.

Varela Stamp

Bishop Verot’s casket remained in the vault, which was opened in 1976 to verify the fact that all of the remains of Fr. Varela had been removed. It was closed up again until 1988, when Bishop Verot’s casket was removed and placed in the vault specially designed for him in the center of the cemetery.  Below is a bust of Bishop Verot, which is located above his tomb and was created by sculptor Ted Karam.


The crypt and the stone were left in poor condition. One of the objectives of the TCPA has been to restore the stone and restore the chapel as much as possible to its appearance in 1855.
We've made a start on it! The stone was removed today by Marble Masters of Jacksonville and taken off for restoration. It wasn't easy to it get out, but they did it.


They will clean it, give it a low buff, and replace it on a marble cradle or frame.  In the meantime, we're taking out the 1970s terra-cotta tile and replacing it with a flooring that will be similar to the original light-colored coquina or possibly shell dash, but easier to maintain and more durable.


So we waved good-bye to the Varela stone and will welcome it back to a much improved home.

Stone Leaving

And by one of those non-coincidences, today was the date of death of Bishop Verot, so we like to think that he was smiling on this latest moment in the history of the Varela Chapel.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Before It’s Too Late–Preserving Inscriptions

Visitors to St Augustine always love to stop by the cemetery at night and peer through the fence, usually seeing nothing but the lights of the Varela Chapel and some dim forms of vaults in the otherwise total darkness. But a couple of weeks ago, they got to see human figures crouching over the vaults, moving beams of light along the surface of the stone…and probably giving rise to a whole new set of St Augustine ghost stories!


The actual mission was quite innocent, however. Tolomato Cemetery has some 1,000 burials, but only about 100 markers, many of which are not legible. Sadly, others are fast joining them in illegibility. There’s not much that can be done about it, except to preserve what can still be seen. And that is what we were doing, thanks to a UF student named John Bennett Lloyd, seen above. Bennett’s help was suggested to us by architectural historian Buff Gordon, who had seen him give a presentation on his work at UF. He is hoping to teach cemetery organizations and historians how to use this technique, which relies on free software and simple natural light. And meticulous patience…


The inscriptions on markers deteriorate because the stone deteriorates, mostly as the effect of weather conditions, particularly rain or freezing. While we have little trouble with freezing and thawing here in St Augustine, rain is certainly a constant. Over the years, the water seeps between the grains of calcite that make up the marble which is the stone used for most of the ledger stones. It dissolves the material between them and produces a condition known as “sugaring,” meaning that the stone gets a granular look, as if it had been sprinkled with coarse sugar or was even made of hardened sugar. 


This leads to the flaking off of pieces of the stone as the water penetrates between the grains or layers, resulting in what you see below. This is the ledger stone of the Elizabeth Forrester vault, the oldest extant one in the cemetery, dating to 1798. Needless to say, as the stone flakes off, so does the inscription.


Others have become illegible because the entire stone is weathering and rounding off, with the inscriptions gradually blurring as the water works its way into the stone and dissolves it. (If you want to know more about stone deterioration, the National Park Service has a great little manual on the subject, which you can find by clicking here.)

Such weathering is very common with ledger stones, the flat horizontal stones laid on top of vaults; headstones, which are vertical, suffer from it as well, but it seems most apparent in the ledger stones. The one below is not only illegible but is cracking from the level of deterioration it has reached.


We have many of the inscriptions recorded, including the names of the persons buried in the various vaults, thanks to work done by Charles Coomes in 1976. But even in the space of only 40 years, some of those indicated on his map have become much less legible, so we’re trying to preserve what we can.

How to do this? The rubbing technique used to be popular – and was used at Tolomato many years ago – but if done frequently it can have a destructive effect on the stone and, in addition, it doesn’t work very well with seriously deteriorated stones. But John Bennett Lloyd looked at this problem and decided to apply a little technology, both high and low. While people have often used photographic enhancement to improve the legibility of inscriptions, Bennett realized that natural light conditions in themselves improved readability in a way that could then be refined through photo editing techniques.


It’s slow work and requires one person to pore over the marker to find the best angles for the light while another person records the text or letters made visible. In this case, Bennett is working with his mother, Doris, who has an interest in genealogy and is familiar with the symbols and phrases commonly found on markers. Even before the photographic enhancement, this simple technique brought out some letters and words we had never been sure about before, and we made some corrections to earlier attempts at transcription.

Stage 2 is the careful processing of these photographs to enhance them as much as possible using photo software. This is also time consuming, and when Bennett finishes with it, he’ll show us the results. And, of course, you can be sure that you’ll see them here on our blog as soon as they arrive!


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Decoration Day and Tolomato Freedmen

Memorial Day is approaching, so this seemed like a timely moment to find some new Tolomato connections.  As we all know – well, those of us old enough to know it – Memorial Day was originally on May 30 and was often referred to by real “old timers” as Decoration Day.  Now it’s another Monday holiday, and nobody even remembers Decoration Day.
But even if you remember the term, you may not know its origin.  A glance at our old friend Wikipedia, however, will tell you that it began in 1865 in Charleston, SC, although as usual, there is some dispute over this and there are many other suggestions as to its origin. But as with most things, it probably had several points of origin.
This particular source tells us that in 1865, the year in which Lincoln was killed only a few days after the formal ending of the Civil War, some of the Freedmen, African Americans who had been freed during the war, decided to honor the 275 Union soldiers who had died during imprisonment at a Charleston racetrack used by the Confederate Army as a prison.  Above we see a photo of the famous prison at Andersonville, where some 13,000 Union Army prisoners died.  St. Augustine’s first bishop, Bishop Agustin Verot, who is buried at Tolomato Cemetery (photo below), used to visit the prisoners at Andersonville when he was the Bishop of Savannah, bringing them spiritual attention and also attempting to improve their conditions.
Verot and chapel
May Day, the first day of May, had long been celebrated and was still celebrated among the English and their heirs, the British settlers who founded Charleston.  But that year, to commemorate the death of Lincoln in April of 1865, the Freedmen held a special ceremony to honor those who had died at the racetrack-prison in Charleston, planting flowers, building a memorial arch, and having speeches and music.
It was repeated in following years, and then this and similar Civil War commemorations were renamed “Memorial Day,” with the new date being May 30. The holiday was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.  The first official observance was May 30, 1868 when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.   But it became a popular celebration as well, as we see above in the photo of Memorial Day activities at the town cemetery in Micanopy, Florida in 1911.
For many, many years, among Protestant Americans, it remained a day to visit cemeteries where ancestors were buried, have picnics there, clean and decorate the graves, and in general commemorate the dead.  Catholics had other traditional days for these activities, but since a large number of the Union dead were Irish Catholics, drafted in the Northeast cities, they certainly took part in Memorial Day activities as well. The holiday became a day for honoring all military service veterans of all US wars, particularly those who had died in the wars, and is still marked by patriotic parades and the placing of flags on military graves, although it appears that family visits to cemeteries are no longer as much of a feature of the day.  Below we see a photo from the St Augustine Record of Memorial Day at the St Augustine National Cemetery. By the way, this is always celebrated at the National Cemetery on Memorial Day at 10:00 am, so if you’re in town that day, plan on attending!
Tolomato Cemetery has the graves of two Freedmen: Hector Adams and Frank Papy, both of whom signed up with the U.S.C.T. (US Colored Troops) in Fernandina Beach and served in Florida.  The USCT were Union Army units formed for the recently emancipated African Americans, and many St Augustine men signed up;  while these two are buried at Tolomato, several others are buried at the Mission.  You may remember that Tolomato volunteers, shown below, straightened and repaired the marker of Hector Adams a couple of years ago.  These two veterans buried at Tolomato died in the late 1870s, shortly before the cemetery closed, and their deaths were unrelated to the Civil War.  Adams was a teamster, or wagon driver, and Papy was a waiter. Interestingly, their regiment, the 21st, was from South Carolina.
Adams Stone
Were they involved in any way in Decoration Day in Charleston?  Probably not, but this shows you the connections, both through time and geography, that thread through St Augustine.  And here are our other military markers, the markers for Confederate veterans. We’ll be open this coming Saturday, May 17 – and since it’s as close as we can get to Memorial Day, we’ll  be placing flags on the graves of both the Freedmen and the Confederate veterans, just as was done some 150 years ago at the first official Decoration Day.
Confederate Markers

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Meanwhile, in Spain…Pageantry!

Tolomato Cemetery was open to the public as usual on the Third Saturday of the month, this year on April 19.  But that week was also Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter during which the events in the life and death of Christ are remembered, and I was in Madrid, Spain, watching the processions that reenact or commemorate some of these events.  And as always, I thought of St Augustine and wondered what we did back in the days when we were a Spanish colony and had the customs and practices of any Spanish colony.  Spanish customs are very formal.  Here we see a procession of Royal Halberdiers, who guard the Royal Palace, accompanying a Good Friday Procession.


The 16th and 17th centuries are considered the Golden Age of Spanish sculpture, and many of the figures carried on the processional platforms (called “pasos”) date to this period.  They are very beautiful figures, carved of wood that was then finished with gesso (a fine layer of a plaster-like substance to give a smooth finish) and carefully painted. Some processional figures are known as “figuras de vestir,” meaning they were meant for dressing. In those cases, only the hands, feet and heads were carved, and the rest of the body was basically a wooden and wire armature that could be dressed in lavish robes and then posed on the paso.  But many of them were full carvings, such as this beautiful “Cristo Yacente,” Christ Lying Prone, which was brought out on Holy Saturday in Madrid.  This is a mid-20th century figure from Olot, a town north of Barcelona famed for its religious statuary.


Did we have these in St Augustine?  We certainly had our version of them, probably not as sumptuous, but we know from an inventory done in Cuba at the end of the First Spanish Period, when all the church goods were brought from St Augustine to Havana before the arrival of the British in Florida, that we had numerous statues and small pasos, meant to be carried by 2-4 people. The one you see above is being carried on the shoulders of about 14 people; in the photo, it’s actually resting on posts while they wait to move on to the next street.  Big processional floats such as the one below can weigh from one to three tons, and are carried by 30-40 people, but there is no indication that St Augustine ever had anything this large. 


However, mentioned in the Havana inventory is a figure with moveable arms and an “urna de cristal.”   Often a crucifix would have a figure of Christ where the arms were attached with leather straps so that the figure could be taken down for Good Friday and the arms moved to lie at the sides.  The figure was then often displayed in a glass casket, or “urna de cristal.”   Details are a little lacking in the inventory, so we don’t know the size of the figure, but in the colonies, I have observed that they are often about 3/4 size.  Mexico produced a lot of beautiful and elegant religious statuary so ours may have come from Mexico; on the other hand, we were under the bishops of Cuba, and the Cubans generally seem to have ordered their religious goods from Spain.

At that time, at the end of the First Spanish Period, the parish church was Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, Our Lady of Solitude or Loneliness, which is an image of the Virgin Mary after the death of Christ.  We certainly would have had a figure representing her, although probably not as magnificent as the 18th century figure you see below, being carried through the streets of Madrid by some 30 people, accompanied by penitentes (hooded penitents), drummers and a large band.


During the Second Spanish Period, when Tolomato Cemetery was active, about a third of the town’s religious goods were sent back to St Augustine from Havana.  Another 3000 pesos worth were ordered by the Bishop of Havana from Barcelona, but the ship was captured by pirates just as it was arriving and taken to Charleston.  It’s unclear whether the Spanish were able to ransom the goods back or get them back in some other way, and whether any of the goods made it to St Augustine. In any case, anything from that period would have been destroyed in the 1887 fire that destroyed the interior of the Cathedral.

Varela Stone 1854-1

And the Varela Chapel at Tolomato, built in 1853, was always simple. As seen in the above 19th century photo, it is described by the Cubans who arranged for its building as having a carved mahogany altar – the elaborately carved parts of the current altar are from that original altar – an ebony cross with silver tips, mahogany candlesticks, a carpet on the floor and a painting of the Transfiguration behind the altar. Everything except the aforementioned carved parts of the altar has disappeared over the years.  But we know that in 1801, when General Jorge (Georges) Biassou was buried, he had clergy in vestments, soldiers marching, and horses with plumes bearing him to Tolomato Cemetery…so perhaps we can assume that St Augustine once upon a time had its modest version of what we see below in the streets of Madrid.