Czech restorers to assess damage to famous New Orleans cemetery

20-04-2006

Three Czech restorers for a well-known Czech restoration company have begun cooperating with the US organisation Save Our Cemeteries to assess overall damages from last year's Hurricane Katrina to one of New Orleans' oldest and most significant cemeteries. So far, funding for the project has been handled privately but the company - known as the Gema Art Group - will be looking for additional funding once full damages are assessed.

Jan Velinger spoke to Gema's Mary Brennan Bachrack, asking her about the hurricane's initial impact:

"High winds actually knocked a lot trees over hitting the stone and marble. Flood water was almost up to four feet. The stone is damaged, a lot of the iron work is damaged. Actually, the cemetery was in a state of destruction even before the hurricane hit so now it's even worse."

I understand this is the St Louis Cemetery No. 2?

"That's right."

How significant is this cemetery in terms of the past?

"The cemetery itself is quite incredible. It has a Creole history and was opened in 1823 just a few years after the Louisiana Purchase, so population was booming in the New Orleans area. The entire cemetery is built above the ground because the ground is too wet [to bury bodies]. There are huge crypts and walls that are covered with tombs. Everything above ground. What is significant about this cemetery is that the cultures are mixed, all in one. The French, Spanish, African-American. It's divided into three squares and one entire square is divided into free people of colour: this is where you'll find a lot of notable names in jazz, politics, and the military that make this site unique.

That said, I can't tell you exact names yet: this is the main reason we're going. The site has never been mapped before, and now it's in real disarray. The restorers will fully map the site, note down the names, and decipher damages that the cemetery suffered before and during the hurricane."

What kinds of other things will the restorers be doing?

"They are there for approximately eight days, working from morning to night. Their work will include an initial report on conditions and damages caused and this will include a conservation proposal for each group of stones for the future.

While there they also have equipment and tools for some 'pilot' restoration to correct emergency damages: tomb stabilisation, sculpture fragment recovery, and they are prepared for stone, brick, stucco, and any metal work. But, they only have eight days."

It sounds like a project for many more people after the initial damage is assessed...

"Exactly. Once they finish this initial report we will be working hard to find further funds, to find more workers, to see who we can send back."

Rough estimates suggest the planned restoration for New Orleans' St Louis Cemetery No. 2 could cost hundreds of thousands of US dollars. The No. 2 - readers may be interested to know - is only slightly younger than the famous St Louis No. 1 cemetery captured famously in Dennis Hopper's 1969 cult film Easy Rider.

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