Monday, March 17, 2008

Digging the Library

Today’s Republican-American included an article about the Silas Bronson Library’s efforts to received state funds for building improvement and expansion. As the article said, given the size of the region the library serves, it is surprising that they’ve had trouble getting state assistance. What the article did not address is the physical problem the library will face with an expansion.

Before 1894, the land surrounding the library was a cemetery. The “Old Burying Ground”, also known as the Grand Street Cemetery, had fallen into disrepair by the 1890s. After a very emotional public debate, city officials finally decided to convert the cemetery into a park, with a library in the middle. The graves located within the footprint of the library were dug up and relocated. A small number of other graves were also dug up and relocated, primarily to other cemeteries in Waterbury. The vast majority of the graves in the cemetery were, however, left in place and are still there today. This includes the beautiful parking lot behind the library—all those wonderful tall old trees make it one of my favorite spots in Waterbury, but I imagine the roots are entangled with the human remains buried there.....

Three of the oldest headstones were donated to the Mattatuck Historical Society (and are still in their collection). The grave markers from within the library footprint were stored in the library basement until the 1920s, when the park was expanded to Meadow Street. The more interesting stones were placed in the wall along Meadow Street. The other grave markers throughout the cemetery were buried, lying flat, roughly 2-3 feet underground.

When the library was redesigned by architect Joseph Stein in the 1960s, he re-used the original library footprint, so as to avoid disturbing any graves. Something as simple as laying down new utility lines to the building has, in recent decades, resulted in the unearthing of headstones.

According to today’s newspaper, the library plans to expand the current building back 50 feet. There was no information about how they intend to do this. Any excavation work is guaranteed to disturb graves (including that of Dr. Jesse Porter, an early downtown developer, whose portrait can be seen at the Mattatuck Museum).

Today there is a state law in place that might have prohibited the conversion of the Grand Street Cemetery to a library, had it been in place in the 1890s:

Sec. 19a-315a. Use of ancient burial place. No municipality shall alienate or appropriate any ancient burial place to any use other than that of a burial ground. No portion of any ancient burial place shall be taken for public use without the approval of the General Assembly. If any ancient burial place is appropriated for any other use and the bodies buried therein or the grave markers marking the same are removed, the burial ground authority shall preserve a record of such removal indicating the date of such removal and the site or place to which such removal was made.

Because the Waterbury burial ground has already been appropriated, the library might be able to get permission to dig up more of the cemetery without too much trouble. If so, the process will be a lot slower and messier than they might hope. The state archaeologist, Nicholas Bellantoni, might very well have to coordinate a careful excavation of the remains (many of which are likely to have decomposed to the point where they are almost indistinguishable from the dirt), which could take a long time and be fairly expensive. It could also be a really interesting and informative project.

For more on the history of the cemetery, visit the Fortune’s Story website.

1 comment:

Peter said...

It's long been the custom in parts of Europe to re-use cemeteries after a sufficient length of time has elapsed. After a couple of hundred years, as you note, the bodies have basically returned to the earth.

It has been claimed that human bodies no longer decay because of all the food preservatives in the modern diet. Amusing, but an urban legend.