Friends of Center Cemetery has been involved in a wide range of restoration projects ensuring the historic and physical restoration of the Cemetery grounds for some time. If you have expertise in any of these areas and are interested in getting involved in future restoration efforts, please see our Membership page for more info.Below are listed a several of the major projects that the organization has helped to coordinate.
Major Restoration Projects
Civil War Monument (1868)
To a great extent Friends owes its existence to this monument. In 1988 Doris C. Suessman (1916-2008) already a forceful, vocal advocate, and a proven and accomplished champion of preserving East Hartford’s architectural heritage, turned her attention to Center Cemetery, by far the town’s oldest survivor of its long history. She had great concern about the deteriorating condition of many historic, colonial-era gravestones, but especially the impressive Civil War Monument, a 25 foot tall Portland brownstone obelisk with fine detailing and high relief coats-of- arms topped with a sculpted spread-winged eagle. It was rapidly deteriorating and appeared to be on the verge of structural failure. Recognizing the urgent need for active support and advocacy by fellow town citizens she got together a small group sharing her concerns and formed the nucleus of a small but strong and very involved board which moved swiftly and incorporated in 1989 as a non-profit, membership organization with Doris as its first president.
Civil War Monument Restoration
The restoration of the monument was a complex, expensive, multi-stage process that began in 1994 and ended with its rededication in the summer of 2010 as the culmination of Center Cemetery’s 300th Anniversary year of celebrations. (1993) – expert condition assessment and restoration plan – $6,000 Stabilization consisting of cleaning and consolidation – $14,000 Removal of brownstone eagle for permanent display in custom-built case in town’s Community Cultural Center – $8,000 Restoration of obelisk shaft and plinth by Beij, Williams & Zito, Inc. – $40,000 Sculpted granite replication of eagle – $30,000 Installation of eagle atop monument – $3,500 Man hours to manage and facilitate — incalculable, all volunteered Friends, in partnership with the town, raised the more than $100,000 it took to restore the monument through a variety of efforts and sources at no cost to town taxpayers
Gov. William Pitkin, III
In 1991 Friends received a $20,000 grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving to restore the impressive 1769 tablestone monument for`William Pitkin, Esq. who died in office as Connecticut’s last colonial governor. The elegant five-legged tablestone of Portland brownstone, along with its platform base, as fine and as expensive a monument one could have in colonial America, was badly deteriorated and near collapse. The complex restoration by Beij, Williams & Zito, Inc. of Hartford included the casting of existing elements to replicate missing or badly rotted sandstone. This is a serious problem with grainy Portland, Connecticut brownstone or sandstone of which Center Cemetery is burdened by so many examples. It is interesting to note that all the brownstone tablestones, the most prestigious of monuments throughout colonial-era New England cemeteries, were made of brownstone from the Portland quarries.
The dedication on April 26, 1992 of the restored monument, officially proclaimed “Pitkin Day,” was celebrated with a parade led by the historic First Company, Governor’s Foot Guard. In addition, in cooperation with the Wadsworth Atheneum and Old State House, among others, an exhibition of such Pitkin-related things as 18th century family documents, the governor’s chair as heard of state, glass, and numerous coin silver pieces, made in Pitkin foundries, including a communion service of highest quality.
Pomp Equality (1759-1824)
With the Pitkin tablestone restoration finished under budget, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving allowed the remaining $2,000 to be applied, with an additional $4,000 from Friends, for the $6,000 restoration of the brownstone marker for freed slave, and subsequent successful river schooner owner, Pomp Equality. It is thought Pomp likely kept his slave name (after the Roman general Pompey) and chose “Equality” as a surname in celebration of his freedom. His marker, simple but in the hight of fashion for the period of classical revivalism, is now situated in the front row of stones in the cemetery, but at the time of his burial this was actually the back row. Nonetheless, he was a successful businessman, a property owner (including “Pomp’s Island” in the Connecticut River at the mouth of the Hockanum River, since eroded away), and buried in the cemetery alongside the whites with no known controversy.. His life undoubtedly has a story worthy of further research.
Beginning in 1991, Friends board members, George Soppelsa, and current president, Raymond Tubbs, began a systematic photographic inventory of the early markers from the oldest of 1710 through the Civil War period, along with transcriptions of their inscriptions — a laborious process yet to be completed, dependent on days allowing the proper raking of sunlight across the face of each marker.
Complete Inventory of Cemetery
By 1996, late Friends board member and archivist, John Spaulding, on his own time (innumerable hours first at the cemetery and then at the computer) and at his own cost completed a computerized inventory of every marked grave in the cemetery, some 5,650 — not only a truly remarkable feat in itself, it was an extraordinary savings to the town and an invaluable contribution to fulfilling the mission of the organization. John also in a further act of generosity underwrote the costs ($4,000) of a bluestone plaque before the entrance to the Pitkin family vault inscribed with the names of all those interred. Jutting out from the hillside on the way to the Civil War Monument, the vault is a prominent visual feature that contributes much to the historical ambience of the cemetery.
Self-Guided Historical Walking Tour Guide
In 1998, with a $5,000 grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council, Friends published a 28 page booklet, copies of which are always available to the public in the nearby Raymond Library, It not only contains general information about the cemetery, its history and colonial-era gravestone carvers, but also a location map and information about 27 graves or sites of special interest. Beginning in 2012 an expansion of this guide will be available in podcast format with each site having a small designating marker with a QR (Quick Response) matrix barcode to be scanned by a smart phone for access to voiced information.
Rev. Samuel Woodbridge (1684 - 1746)
In 1705 Rev. Woodbridge became the first minister of the Hartford Settlement’s Third Parish for its residents on the east side of the Great River. The beautiful Portland brownstone monument of this significant personage of the town’s early history was greatly deteriorated with much loss of its extraordinary carving. It is undoubtedly a product of the Johnson Family, a great gravestone carving dynasty of 18th century Connecticut that worked from the quarries of Portland. The stone was very likely carved by Thomas Johnson II (1718 – 1774), noted for his deeply-carved, elaborate decorations and rococo-like exuberance. This stone, with the fully sculpted face of its cherubim, could be considered an exceptionally fine example from the Portland school of carvers at its peak. In 1997 Friends removed the maker and placed it in the Friends storage vault for protective custody. First Congregational Church made the restoration of this marker for their first minister as a major feature of the church’s 300th anniversary celebration. The $10,000 restoration in 2001 included $4000 from Friends in form of a matching grant as a successful, facilitating challenge to the church congregation. In 2009 Friends paid $200 for a BioWash application to remove lichen from the stone and impede its regrowth.
Brownell, Henry Howard (1820-1872) & Clarence Melville (1828-1862)
Appropriately in the shadow of the Civil War Monument, in a row of eight family members, is the grave of renown poet, Henry Brownell, termed the “Laureate of the Battlefield” of the Civil War who served as ensign and secretary to Admiral David Farragut on the USS Hartford. Next to that is the memorializing marker of his explorer brother, Clarence who died in Central Africa while searching for the source of the White Nile. They are two of three identical standing marble slabs (the third being for their father, Dr. Pardon) which were each broken into three large pieces left lying on the ground. Friends paid $1500 so that they both now stand with their pieces fully supported by custom-made stainless steel frames. This method is a good example of non-damaging, reversible restoration, in contrast to their earlier failed restorations with damaging cement. Unfortunately all eight gravestones (all by the same maker), like all those made of marble, continue to slowly erode (called sugaring) from the effects of atmospheric pollution.
Maintaining landscape features is an important and often neglected part of the preservation of historic cemeteries. The poetic ambience lent by the presence of columnar native cedar trees is an important characteristic of early New England cemeteries. This is certainly true of Center Cemetery, Friends which received block grant funds to replace a number of its very old and dying cedar trees.
In the devastating early northeaster with heaves now fallen October of 2011,the cemetery lost five of its largest deciduous trees, including two large white mulberry trees well over a century old. These mulberries should be replaced as they were reflective of the “silk culture” begun in Connecticut in the 1780s and bought into by many citizens of the town in the 1800s, as a cottage industry. These trees are very likely offsprings of the numerous mulberries planted to supply fresh leaves to feed the silkworms in nearby “cocooneries,” one of which was owned by Dr. Pardon Brownell.
Main St Entrance Renovations
Center Cemetery is fortunate to have a small park- like buffer between its brick-walled entrance on Main St. and the actual historic cemetery itself. This treed and grassy area is often the site for tents, booths and the like for public events. In 2006 to enhance this entrance area and make it more inviting for public use, Friends won $30,000 in block grant funds used in partnership with the town to design and install a 30 ft. diameter stone patio with landscaping. This was soon followed by a new large embossed metal sign naming the cemetery and its founding date on the brick wall, and an eye-level, free-standing sign, designed by Friends, with full- color illustrations at the patio’s edge, giving a visitor the history of the cemetery. Together this signage cost $12,000 from design to execution.
Back to Top