Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Weeds, Weeds and More Weeds

This innocent looking little plant below is actually one of the worst enemies of that sturdy looking brick and mortar on which it has installed itself.  The tiny roots push their way into tiny cracks – and then start getting bigger and bigger and going deeper, until the crack itself begins to widen.  Years of untended weed growth can contribute to the eventual collapse of even the biggest and most solid looking of vaults.


Here we see a beautiful maidenhair fern that has taken up residence in a crack -  which is rapidly filling up with ferns and being pushed apart as the plant spreads out and gets comfortable.


The brick vaults at Tolomato are particularly susceptible to weed attacks, since the mortar used is generally a basic lime mortar and not even as sturdy as the more modern, water-resistant Portland cement type of mortar. Rain and weather conditions weaken the mortar, and then a plant seed is fortunate enough to find a home in some little opening…and the process begins.


There are other kinds of plant life that can damage stone.  Above we see the stone of Father Edward Mayne, a parish priest of what is now the Cathedral, who died in 1833 after serving only a few years in St Augustine. Covering it is a mixture of moss and lichen, topped by a stray strand of Spanish moss.  (Yes, we will straighten it one of these days, but it’s going to be a big project.)


In this close up,we can see how the lichen virtually covers the surface; this is called “colonizing.” Disregard the Spanish moss, because it’s harmless. It’s a member of the bromeliad family, has no roots and is an epiphyte, a type of plant that it gets its nourishment from rain and air. On the other hand, the lichens can be destructive to inscriptions and surfaces, because they excrete acids that penetrate into the stone’s surface, possibly to aid in attaching themselves. These acids penetrate between the grains of the rock itself and speed weathering.

When we clean stones at the cemetery, we use an anti-biological, such as D2, which supposedly slows the regrowth of lichens and moss.  But they always come back, as we see happening with this stone, which was cleaned only about a year ago.


And then there are the really, really big weeds:  Self-seeded trees.  During the times when the cemetery was somewhat neglected, these trees saw their opportunity and took root. Most of the existing trees in the cemetery are probably self-seeded, but only a few of them present a problem, such as the one we see below. This tree is a hackberry tree, which commonly seeds itself in vacant lots or other untended spaces here in Florida.  As we can see, it grew up on the side of this cast iron grave enclosure…and ended up absorbing one of the posts in its growth. As it grew, it lifted the iron fence up and is still carrying it ever upwards as it grows.


In this close up, we can see how the iron post is embedded in the tree. The solution in cases like this is often that of cutting the metal piece off and letting the tree have the section that it has engulfed, so that it doesn’t rip up the entire enclosure. In this case, however, the tree will have to be removed when the new fence is put in, so it will be cut above the top of the fence post and at its base, and then the remaining piece of trunk will be allowed to decay off over the years.


Keeping the plant world at bay is a constant struggle at Tolomato Cemetery.  In fact, when we’re open this coming weekend, October 18, one of our projects will be – you guessed it – weeding the vaults.  Weeding isn’t a very glamorous preservation task, but it is essential, and with Florida’s plant-friendly, humid, hot climate, it’s something that needs to be done constantly.  So bring your gardening gloves the next time you visit the cemetery!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Report from Havana.

Tolomato Cemetery was open this weekend for our special Fence Fund kick-off…but more on that later.


We had an unexpected visit from a couple, Gladys and Lázaro Prieto (above), just back from Havana. They had visited us a few years ago, and had promised to bring back photos of Fr. Varela’s burial place the next time they visited family in Havana.  And they were as good as their word - here are the photos they brought us on this weekend.


Above is the grand entrance of the University of Havana, and below is a small courtyard at the university that features a beautiful marble bust and memorial plaque in honor of Fr. Varela.  He is wearing what is probably an academic gown of the early 19th century, when he was a brilliant teacher at San Carlos Seminary, which eventually became the University of Havana.

Varela Cuba1

The bust is quite large, as we can see from the photo below that shows the Prietos standing next to it and in front of the plaque.


Following is a close-up of the plaque.  A translation of the the Spanish text reads, “The youth to whom I once devoted my efforts keeps me in its memory and they tell me that the new generation is not indifferent to my name. Felix Varela.  TO THE PATRIOT, TIRELESS EDUCATOR, PRIEST AND FAMOUS PHILOSOPHER, SEED OF OUR NATIONALITY, FELIX VARELA Y MORALES, FROM THE CUBAN REVOLUTIONARY STUDENT YOUTH.”


Below is the Aula Magna, the Great Hall, where Fr. Varela’s remains are kept in an urn.  The Prietos tried to get into the hall, which is used as a formal reception area for welcoming dignitaries and holding official functions, but unfortunately they weren’t allowed in – this time, although they hope to have more success in the future.  But even these views of the Varela monument remind us of St Augustine’s close connections with Havana, and Fr. Varela’s position as a link between the two cities.  Many thanks to Gladys and Lázaro Prieto for bringing us these great photos!

Aula Cuba

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!