Many of the tombs are empty and falling to pieces, the tablets gone, or so worn by winter's storms and summer's heats that the inscriptions are no longer legible.—A.G. Durno, 1900

By the end of the nineteenth century, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 had fallen out of favor as New Orleans residents moved out to the more fashionable cemeteries of Lafayette and Metairie. As interment activity fell, so did visitation and family maintenance activities. Grace King, the noted New Orleans historian, wrote in 1895 of a cemetery that was no longer open to visitors:

The crumbling bricks of the first resting places built there are still to be seen, ...  It opens its gates only at the knock of an heir, so to speak; gives harbourage only to those who can claim a resting place by the side of an ancestor.

The true root cause for the deterioration results seen at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is a lack of cyclical maintenance and timely periodic repair. The weathering and ageing of porous building materials is to be expected. The surface finishes and stucco layers were applied as sacrificial finishes to protect the interior structural elements. Webster's unabridged dictionary defines sacrificial as "relating to sacrifice, the destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else; giving up of some desirable thing in behalf of a higher object." In building materials, sacrificial implies impermanence, and the original intent was that the sacrificial finishes, both stucco and lime washes, would be replaced more frequently that the structural body when their effectiveness became reduced.

Today, there is new interest in the maintenance and restoration of this historic cemetery. Family members and volunteers can all be involved.

Some things to consider approaching maintenance and restoration of tombs

Limewashing Guidelines

We went to the Catholic burying ground. … No grave could be dug of the usual depth without coming to water, … the coffin is laid upon the surface of the ground, and a strong structure of brick built around it. This is then plastered and whitewashed.—John H.B. Latrobe, ca. 1834

All stucco tombs were painted for decoration and protection with limewashes of various colors. Traditional and acrylic-amended limewashes are still recommended as the most serviceable protective coatings for stucco covered tombs. Evidence of ochre, red, and gray colored and white limewashes has been found on tombs as well as in numerous historical images. Individual tombs can be analyzed to determine their original colors and refinished to match the most significant historical color.

Stable lightfast alkali-proof cement pigments should be used to recreate these colored washes. For most tombs, a plain unpigmented whitewash is recommended. Contact Save Our Cemeteries for a color chart of traditional limewashes used for the Alley 9L restoration project and for information on limewash recipes and material sources.

If slaked lime putty is not available, thoroughly mix hydrated lime (Type S) with water to a putty consistency, top with water, and allow it to stand covered for at least 24 hours; two weeks is preferable. Before applying, sieve the lime through a fine screen and thin with water to the consistency of light cream. To increase adhesion of paint to the old surface, a diluted acrylic emulsion can be added to the mixing water in a ratio (by volume) of approximately 1 part acrylic to 10 parts water just before use. If a pigmented limewash is used, the correct ratio of pigment to limewash should first be determined by the prepartion of small test batches, applied to the tomb surface and allowed to dry.

Pigmented limewashes should be mixed in large enough quantities for each single application coat and no less than 1-2 gallons. White limewash is best pigmented by first mixing the total amount of pigment required in a small amount of water or limewash and then adding that into the larger quantity to be pigmented. Never add the pigment dry into the limewash as it will not evenly disperse and cause streaking. Mix well by hand, or with a mechanical mixer, for not less than 15 minutes.

Before application of any paint finishes, stucco surfaces should be free of dirt, debris, oil, biological growth, and flaking paint; otherwise, the limewash will not bond. Heavy accumulations of earlier finishes can be easily removed by hand scrapping aided by low pressure water such as a garden hose. More specialized methods of paint removal are possible; however these are best performed by an experienced professional, as they can cause great damage to stucco and stonework as well as cause personal injury if misapplied.

Dampen the wall with water and then apply the limewash with traditional distemper or tampico fiber brushes, brushing it on in short multi-directional stroke applications. As the water evaporates from the limewash, rework, or polish the surface finish for even distribution. Due to the rapid drying, limewash should be applied in small areas to avoid drying at the overlap. Apply several thin coats (at least three), allowing each coat to dry before applying the next coat. Dampen the surface between coats and avoid working in direct sun.

If used properly, limewash finishes are durable, inexpensive, easy to apply, and environmentally and user friendly. Their translucent appearance cannot be duplicated by opaque modern synthetic "latex" paints and their eventual build-up is easily removed unlike latex and oil-based paints.

Text adapted from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 Guidelines for Preservation and Restoration.

Crack Repair & Periodic Reapplication of Stucco

After disastrous fires of 1788 and 1794, the Spanish Cabildo passed building laws that forbid the construction of wooden buildings within the center of the city. "requiring walls to be of brick or of brick between posts protected by at least an inch of cement plaster."—Records and Deliberations of the Cabildo, IV, typescript, WPA, 1936. Before the invention of Portland cement, the use of the word 'cement' described any adhesive mixture containing a binder paste, aggregate and water, capable of uniting masses of solid matter to a compact whole.

Historically at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the mortars and bricks were covered with protective layers of stucco. Unlike the mortar, most stucco mixes were hydraulic lime- or natural cement-based with an aggregate of sharp fine quartz sand. These more durable stucco layers protected the soft interior structural brick and clayey mortar from moisture and invasive plant damage, and provided a smooth appearance to the surface.

Over time, as a result of tomb subsidence and rising damp, thermal and moisture changes in the materials cause mortar joints to loosen and bricks to move. Stresses build up in the walls and small cracks develop in the stucco layer, generally in line with the brick courses.

With periodic maintenance, these cracks are easily repaired and stucco should be reapplied as needed. This periodic maintenance keeps the tomb sound for generations. More information is available on recommended stucco and mortar mixes.

Portland cement was not used in tomb masonry until the mid twentieth century. Today, many of the early tombs have been encased in hard, dense cement stucco, probably in the mistaken belief that once applied, maintenance would no longer be required. The mismatch of properties and the entrapment of ever-present moisture between the interior brick structure, the historic stuccos, and the modern cements, have created problems of incompatibility and have led to structural damage far in excess of the damage seen in tombs that were not repaired with cement. In addition to trapping moisture, cement-based mortar and stucco repairs typically cause through-wall structural cracking of the brickwork, and when removed, tear off the face of the damaged brick beneath the stucco.

Text adapted from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 Guidelines for Preservation and Restoration.

Cleaning Marble Tablets & Sculpture

The decision to clean should be based on a genuine necessity, as all masonry cleaning techniques subject the stone to potential hazards.

A monument which is darkened with soiling, biological growth and metallic staining, is not only disfigured, but also is susceptible to masonry deterioration and, therefore, requires cleaning. A lightly soiled monument with legible details, however, does not require a major cleaning. All cleaning methods must be tested in a discreet location for each monument before full-scale treatment begins and all but the simplest methods should be left to the professional. The gentlest method should be tested first to avoid unnecessary damage. Fragile, bowed tablets should not be cleaned prior to stabilization.

Water washing is the gentlest, safest, and least expensive method for cleaning masonry and may be performed by the nonprofessional provided the tomb or stonework is sound. Most general surface soiling and some biological growth are easily removed with water. All open joints must be repaired first, to prevent penetration of large quantities of water into the masonry. The water should have a low metal content to avoid staining. Usually, potable water is adequate. Water can be applied at low pressure with a garden hose spray and may be supplemented by gentle scrubbing with nonmetallic soft bristle brushes and household detergent.

Much of the black staining occurring on tomb marble and stucco is not atmospheric soiling, but fungal growth. This can be most effectively removed after wet brushing by applying a 2-5% solution of calcium hypochlorite as found in commercial pool chlorine (2-5 parts dry powder to 100 parts water by volume) mixed with an inert clay such as talc or kaolin or paper pulp as a poultice. Once dry this can be removed by brushing and the surfaces well rinsed with a hose or pressure washer. Proper safety precautions must be taken as this material is a strong oxidizing agent. Eye and skin protection is required.

Since black gypsum crusts, resulting from the interaction of the marble or limestone with acidic atmospheric pollution, are water soluble, they may be removed with a slow water soak. For this method it is most important that all joints and seams are watertight to prevent the introduction of water to the tomb interior. Necessary drainage is critical to avoid water collection. As slight brown or yellow oxide stains can develop on certain stones possessing iron impurities, tests should always be done first.

Many commercial chemical products are currently available for cleaning, based on acidic and alkaline compounds and detergents. If used improperly, these can cause etching of stone, insoluble residues, and can introduce harmful salts which can further stone decay. Use of such cleaning systems is best left to experienced professionals.

Abrasive cleaning involving any grit or aggregate applied under pressure should not be used on stucco, brick, or friable stone. The technique is too aggressive and can cause irreversible damage to historic fabric. Abrasive cleaning can lead to accelerated weathering by pitting the surface, thus opening the masonry to increased moisture penetration, atmospheric reactivity, and subsequent deterioration. Basically, any method which removes stone should be avoided. Only an experienced conservator should perform such specialized cleaning methods and only after individual tests have been performed.

Text adapted from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 Guidelines for Preservation and Restoration.

Repairing Marble Tablets & Sculpture

Memorial style and order developed as more impressive tombs were built in St. Louis I and successive cemeteries. … Opportunities for marble cutters grew with the expansion and growing sophistication of cemetery architecture. — Patricia Brady, "Florville Foy, F.M.C." 1993

A fine-grained, white calcitic marble was used most frequently for closure tablets, tomb slabs, plaques, and sculpture. Several other stones are also found in lesser quantities, including a medium to large grained grey veined white marble and a dark gray limestone. By far the most serious problem affecting tomb stonework is the deformation (bowing) and breaking of the closure tablets and their surface erosion ('sugaring') from atmospheric weathering.

Marble, being highly crystalline, under-goes a volume increase with each thermal cycle, leading to permanent expansion and distortion. If restricted, eventual cracking and breaking of the stone often occurs in order to relieve this built-up stress. This is clearly visible in the many bowed and deformed S- and C-shaped closure tablets. Their poor design as large thin (1") slabs tightly fitted in the tomb opening and fine-grained structure have contributed significantly to their structural deformation and breakage in New Orleans' hot damp climate.

Surface erosion and loss of inscription and carved detail on marble and limestone are due to these stones' chemical sensitivity to acidic conditions caused by atmospheric pollution and micro-flora. Black staining commonly found on horizontal surfaces and joints is the result of black fungal growth.

Frequently, due to the conditions outlined above, inscription tablets and various architectural and sculpted elements become stained, eroded, fragile, and fragmented, often disassociated from their original location. In such instances, if conservation work cannot proceed immediately, stonework should be photographed where found, and a precise record kept which will identify all of the elements. This is useful should elements be stolen and later retrieved. All of the fragments should be marked (on their reverse side) with their location using chalk or a graphite pencil. A copy of the record should be made and stored with the actual element, and the original copy placed with the governing body of the cemetery or preservation society.

Fragmented and damaged enclosure tablets and sculpture should be repaired as soon as possible before pieces become lost or damaged from handling. A trained conservator or technician is best qualified to perform this work.

Where tablets are missing or need replacement, fine white marble should be selected over other stones. Tablets should be sized to a minimum of 1 1/2" in thickness. Where possible, new and reinstalled tablets should be shaved at the bottom ¼" and placed on lead or polyethylene foam shims to allow for thermal movement.

The original single or double pinning assemblies used to retain the tablet in place should be reused or substituted in kind. If wooden blocks were used to anchor the pin into the vault masonry, these can be replaced if necessary with more durable composite wood to avoid future insect attack. Only non-corrosive stainless steel or bronze pins should be used. These are available from the Archdiocesan Cemeteries office.

The recent substitution of gray granite and blue anorthosite for many of the historic white marble tablets is significantly impacting the historic appearance of the site as a whole. These new closure tablet replacements are dramatically different both in color and reflectivity from their marble precedents. While the closure tablet issue may seem like a minor aesthetic debate, it is indicative of the larger question of the contribution of repetitive architectural elements to the visual integration of the overall site and the impact of such changes. Durable white marble is available from local stone suppliers at comparable costs, and should be used in lieu of granite at this site.

Text adapted from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 Guidelines for Preservation and Restoration.

Vegetation & Landscape Issues

Round many of them are planted rose bushes and other flowering shrubs, some of which at this time were in full bearing and here and there were cedar and orange trees, which always retain their greenness. — A. Oakey Hall, 1851

As in the case of domestic architecture, a range of garden features, such as planters, accompanies the various types of tomb that have developed in the cemetery. Used for both visual and olfactory decoration of the tomb and cemetery as a whole, gardens played an important role in the design of the tomb, and specialized plant palettes encoded with the language of mourning were used as part of this design.

Family memories and documents may describe the traditional flowers used in the planters and to make the immortelles placed on the tomb for All Saints' Day and other special occasions. If the precinct has not been paved over, consider re-establishing the grass and shell ground cover and replace plantings that once existed. Plants and trees with invasive roots should be avoided, as they can damage tomb masonry.

Caution must be taken with power equipment near masonry or iron work. Grass and ground cover should be cut with nylon filament trimmers only. Do not use herbicides as they can cause deterioration of masonry and corrosion of metals, in cases where contact might occur. When considering major restoration work, do not undertake any interventions that create a discordant appearance in the cemetery landscape, such as the repaving of the precinct with concrete. Covering the surface with cement serves to reduce the ability of the ground to evaporate moisture, but does not change the fact that the ground water is right below the tomb providing a ready source of moisture for rising damp. The interior structure of highly porous bricks, with numerous capillary sized pores, are powerful water absorbers and will overcome gravity to pull ground water into the structure.

Text adapted from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 Guidelines for Preservation and Restoration.

Masonry Guidelines

… simple grace and dignity imparted with a master's skill to rotten, old, soft red brick made from the batture mud of the Mississippi, covered for the most part with stucco of lime obtained from the burning of oyster shells &mellip; — Allison Owen, AIA, 1913

All masonry work including brickwork, stucco and stone should be executed under optimum weather conditions to ensure the success of the repairs. No work should be executed or cured during weather below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. To prevent too rapid drying in temperatures over 85 degrees Fahrenheit, masonry work may require repeated misting and protection from the sun with damp burlap, canvas or plastic sheeting and canopies.

Brickwork repairs account for the majority of the work required at most tombs. All brick joints should be inspected for missing and deteriorated mortar, and loose bricks should be removed and cleaned for resetting. Defective joints should be raked by hand to 1" in depth or down to sound mortar. All dirt and loose debris should be removed before repointing or resetting. Masonry should be well dampened then bricks set and joints repointed with a compatible mortar mix that matches the original mortar or its properties.

A suitable mortar mix should employ a lime putty or hydraulic lime. A lime and Portland cement blend can be used for roofs where harsh conditions prevail. Two such recommended mixes which have been used with good results in Lafayette 1 and St. Louis Cemeteries No. 1 and 2 are as follows: 1 part white Portland cement to 2 parts lime putty (slaked for a minimum of 3 months) or hydrated masons lime (Type S) to 9 parts clean masons sand. Where available, a hydraulic lime mortar is preferable; made from 1 part Riverton HHL (hydrated hydraulic lime) to 3 parts masons sand (all parts by volume).

Masonry cracks in the stucco and brickwork often occur at the roof, corners, and occasionally in the walls, if uneven settlement has occurred. Superficial cracks can be mortar repaired; however, large or deep structural cracks will need to be grouted or stitched using specialized materials and techniques by a qualified professional.

Missing and broken bricks should be replaced with those of similar size and water absorption properties to ensure compatibility. Recycled bricks are available from local suppliers. Wherever possible, original construction methods should be duplicated, such as bonding and coursing patterns, unless these have failed due to inadequate support or subsequent modifications to the tomb. Any changes to construction details should be carefully considered before execution, as these can cause serious future problems. Before re-laying, all bricks should be thoroughly soaked in water for several hours to reduce suction. Finally, joints should be raked back to provide a mechanical key for new stucco.

All stucco should be gently sounded with an acrylic mallet to determine where it is detached. When tapped with the mallet, detached stucco produces a characteristic hollow sound. Remove non-ornamented detached stucco by hand with a hammer and masonry chisel. Cut the edge of sound stucco at an inward angle to provide a dovetail key for new stucco. Remove all loose dirt and debris from the masonry substrate with soft bristle brushes and dampen well all surrounding stucco and masonry brickwork prior to and after the application of new stucco.

Always apply stucco repair patches to the level of the existing stucco. Do not feather edges of new stucco repairs over adjacent existing stucco. Match existing texture using the appropriate wood or rubber float. If stucco was scored to replicate ashlar block, allow stucco to set until thumbprint hard and strike a shallow joint line in the same dimension and manner as the original. Flush fill all surface cracks and holes in order to provide a water tight skin. Finally, make sure all horizontal surfaces allow for proper water disposal.

A highly durable and compatible mix for new stucco and stucco repairs is 1 part Riverton hydrated hydraulic lime (HHL) to 2 parts fine masons sand (by volume). A blend of 1 part white Portland cement to 2 parts lime putty to 6 parts fine masons' sand may be used if the hydraulic lime is not locally available. Sound ornamental stucco, such as cornice moldings and pilasters, should always be preserved. However, missing areas requiring replacement can be duplicated carefully by recording the profile with a molding gauge and cutting a matching sheet metal template, which can then be used by a skilled mason to re-create the molded work in place. Hand rebuilding of moulded work should be avoided.

Text adapted from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 Guidelines for Preservation and Restoration.


New Orleans in the nineteenth century was an amalgam of cultures. In addition to the technical cross-fertilization ... the different metalworking traditions represented, there presumably would have been a thorough mixing of design sensibilities from Germany, France and England.

Years of deferred maintenance and vandalism have left the metalwork in the cemetery in very poor condition. Theft is the major cause of most missing metalwork in the cemetery. Many of the enclosures are completely or partially missing, the most vulnerable elements being the gates, crosses, and decorative details. Smaller items, such as the relief sculpture and cast iron urns, have also been lost to theft. The deteriorated condition of the metalwork sends a message that it is expendable and makes it easier for elements to be wrenched loose.

Other commonly found conditions include: structural failure and corrosion, racking, and failed alterations and repairs. Treatments include stabilization with temporary measures, surface protection, repairs and replacement.

Temporary measures can do much to stabilize loose and detached metalwork and safeguard its loss to theft and vandalism. Bracing and wiring loose elements and installing locks on gates allow elements to remain in place. If removal is necessary, all elements should be tagged and stored in a safe and dry location until repairs can be undertaken.

Most if not all cemetery metalwork traditionally received some type of coating for protection. The application of paints and coatings are therefore both historically appropriate and necessary to preserve the decorative metalwork. Prior to applying any finishes, the metalwork must be properly prepared or the finishes will fail prematurely or even cause accelerated corrosion by trapping moisture underneath. Careful cleaning is also useful in revealing structural defects that might require attention prior to refinishing. All cleaned ironwork must be immediately treated with a quality inhibitive primer or coating to prevent the formation of rust which will interfere with adhesion of the new coating. This is especially important in the humid environment of New Orleans.

Most repairs to metalwork require a qualified professional. While repair using original techniques is expensive because of the specialized skills needed, there are excellent reasons for making the investment. See the full discussion of cleaning, protection, repair and replacement options in the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 Guidelines for Preservation and Restoration.

Metalwork Protective Coatings

Most if not all cemetery metalwork traditionally received some type of coating for protection. The application of paints and coatings are therefore both historically appropriate and necessary to preserve the decorative metalwork.

Before any new finishes are applied, the metalwork must be thoroughly cleaned, and all small holes and pitting that might hold water should be filled with a quality patching material designed for metal.

A coating system should be selected that can be easily applied depending on the application context (on- or off-site). Only paints meeting all the current health, safety, and environmental standards should be used. Acrylic paints are building a relatively good track record for protection of metalwork and should be used over other irreversible coatings such as epoxy based paints.

Paints and coatings should only be applied when surfaces are perfectly dry and temperatures are above 50 degrees F. Brush applying paint insures the best coverage. If railings are removed, they can be spray painted in a controlled environment followed by "back-brushing" to ensure that the paint is worked into the surface and into all joints.

Three-coat work consisting of a primer, intermediate, and finish coats is standard for bare metal. A good quality corrosion inhibitive, "direct-to-metal" (DTM) primer should be used followed by two compatible finish coats. If the paint is applied in thin coats, there will be better adhesion, build-up will be minimized, and the detail of the metalwork will be less obscured.

Archival evidence suggests that architectural wrought iron was sometimes wax and oil treated, rather than painted. In these cases, a microcrystalline-based wax formulation can be used to protect and enhance the metalwork. This method has been extensively used with success on outdoor bronze sculpture and at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

The wax mixture is applied hot to a previously cleaned and heated surface to chase off condensed moisture on the surface and to insure adequate flow of the wax for complete coverage. Different formulations are possible, including mixtures of microcrystalline and low melting point polyethylene waxes with pigments such as lampblack, and are best prepared and applied by a professional conservator.

See the full discussion of metalwork cleaning, protection, repair and replacement options in the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 Guidelines for Preservation and Restoration.