Tomb Survey

In all works of preservation, restoration or excavation, there should always be precise documentation in the form of analytical and critical reports, illustrated with drawings and photographs. — Article 16, Venice Charter, ICOMOS, 1964

In 1981, a full survey of St. Louis 1 Cemetery was made by Save Our Cemeteries, Inc., and all documentation was housed at The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC). The surveyors documented all tablet locations and inscriptions, names, and dates. Minimal information was collected on the materials of construction, decoration, and tomb condition. Each tomb was photographed. Tombs were numbered generally according to an earlier hand-drawn survey map from the Archdiocese and were cross-referenced to an older Archdiocese numbering system that locates tombs by their street or alley address.

After reviewing various models of surveys used for other cultural landscapes and cemeteries, a pilot survey form was developed and the development group prepared a field manual to assist and aid in the use of the survey on site. The manual covered all sections of the physical survey including identification, environment, description, condition (masonry), landscape, and metals. While the survey form and manual were developed for the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 survey, they are meant to serve as models for future cemetery and burial ground surveys.1

Download Survey Form | Download Illustrated Manual

The purpose of providing a manual for participants in the survey was twofold. First, it contained clear guidelines as to how the survey form was to be completed, thereby controlling the process in which the data was collected. It was necessary that elements and conditions were accounted for in a uniform and controlled manner in order to accurately map the information and analyze the data by querying the database. Second, the manual provided a specific definition and complete explanation for each item in the survey. To supply further clarification for certain items on the survey, such as tomb type and planting materials, illustrations or photographs accompanied the definitions. By providing a manual to those involved, the survey team hoped to ensure accurate observations in the field and to record standardized, uniform results.

Before the site visit, historical images and references to landscape features were collected and analyzed. On site, a complete inventory of the current features, vegetation, ground covers, path materials, drains, and individuation plantings was taken. Further topographic mapping information was collected and all interior and exterior paths and sidewalks were surveyed. Each tomb or marker was surveyed for location and placement, typology and features, condition, and integrity. All tombs, markers and landscape features were photographed and key areas were further documented with measured drawings.

To help participants locate the tombs within the cemetery, each tomb on the original Archdiocese map was numbered. A grid was superimposed over the entire cemetery and assigned alphanumeric designations. The cemetery was divided into 25 sections, with 30 tombs per section. Each surveyor was assigned one section. During the week of March 10, 2001, each surveyor completed his or her assigned survey section. In October, 2001, after an analysis of the March results, a team of four field checked the entire survey particularly for condition and integrity ratings and added additional clarification to notes on construction and additions.

Creating, organizing, and implementing a physical survey of the over 700 tombs and markers at St. Louis 1 Cemetery was itself a challenging undertaking. However, in terms of the overall objectives of the Collaborative Studio, the survey was only the beginning. The information gathered was entered into a Microsoft Access® 2000 database then into Arc View® 3.2, a geographic information system, where data could be plotted and analyzed through spatial mapping.

1. Work referenced included: Earlier St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and 2 surveys, Lafeyette Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans, LA; The Center Church Crypt, Temple Street, New Haven, CT; Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah, GA; King's Chapel Burying Ground and Granary Burying Ground, Boston, MA; Old Swedes' Burying Ground, Wilmington, DE; Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Burying Ground, Pittsburgh, PA; Trinity and St. Paul's Churchyards, New York, NY; Congressional Cemetery, Cenotaph Survey, Washington, DC; and The Protestant Cemetery, Rome, Italy; plus Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, NM and Mesa Verde National Park, Mesa Verde, CO Condition Assessments. Other publications consulted included: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management, Preservation Guidelines for Municipally Owned Historic Burial Grounds and Cemeteries (Boston, MA); Canadian Ministry of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation, Landscape of Memories: A Guide for Conserving Historic Cemeteries (Canada); English Heritage, Stonehenge World Heritage Site Management Plan (England); Matero, Frank G. New Orleans Historic Cemetery Conservation Program. (LA State Historic Preservation Office, 1987); Historic Tallahassee Preservation Board, Historic Cemetery Preservation Handbook (Tallahassee, FL); Matero, Frank G. "Toward a Methodology for the Conservation of Historic Burying Grounds and Funerary Monuments." Annual Conference of the Association for Preservation Technology, (1991); Matero, Frank G. The Conservation of Historic Funerary Monuments and Burying Grounds, (The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, 1988).


Gradual integration of specific guidelines and interventions based on the balance between values, use, and economy are the best means to achieve the preservation goals.

Any attempt at preserving an object, building, or site invariably causes a disruption in the natural life cycle of the subject. St Louis 1 Cemetery is a living, dynamic place with many historical uses, meanings, and appearances that must be understood to be stewarded properly. The cemetery should be encouraged to continue in its historical roles as an active place of burial and family visitation, as well as a tourist destination and a place for contemplation. Future changes to facilitate these uses, and to conserve the physical fabric, should be planned and managed to preserve and enhance the character of the site.

St. Louis 1 Cemetery was not originally intended to be viewed as a collection of decayed tombs. However, over time, the cemetery, like many such sites, has become defined by, and admired for, its picturesque decay. Indeed, much of its past and current appeal is tied to this aspect of age. Decay and age are essential components of the site. However, these components must be counteracted by sensitive and timely repair and maintenance.

During this project, appropriate maintenance, repair and restoration methods have been tested and implemented on pilot tombs and on the tombs of Alley 9-L St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 Guidelines for Preservation & Restoration has been prepared and can be downloaded from this site. We recommend repair techniques and cycles that are maintainable and sympathetic with the existing materials. In addition, we believe that some level of aesthetic restrictions should be placed on this site, just as is often appropriate for significant historic districts, to attempt to prevent jarring changes, and to ensure long-term sustainability of this fragile cultural landscape.

Two material changes in the past thirty years highlight the aesthetic issues: 1) the substitution of blue granite as a closure tablet for white marble and 2) the liberal use of concrete for roofs and pavements and full replacement of tombs of historic value.

Marble Tablet Replacement Issue

Marble tablet deformation is the result of dimensional under sizing (thickness), unsupported installation, climate, and material. While all of these factors cannot be easily remedied, such as climate, increasing the thickness of the slabs to 1¼ – 1½" would dramatically improve marble tablet rigidity. Substituting other varieties of white marble (for the original Carrara), that are less prone to bowing, would be preferable to using the popular and widely available dark gray granite and anorthosite.

These granite closure tablet replacements are dramatically different both in color and reflectivity from their marble precedents. Their widespread use is significantly impacting the appearance of the site as a whole. Surface finish samples show that historically, the tombs were white-washed or colored red, yellow, or grey. Currently, most painting has been with modern white latex-based materials. Tomb colors are now inverted: white tombs with colored tablets are appearing. 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.

Replacement also encourages loss of critical information if tablets are not remounted on the tomb. Remedial methods to repair and reinforce tablets for reuse do exist, and have been demonstrated throughout this project.

Concrete Roofs, Precincts and Tombs

The issue of the poured-in-place concrete roofs and precincts is another instance of a decision that may have seemed logical given the information that had been provided to the Archdiocese on an individual tomb basis, but the impact on the tombs and on the site as a whole has been dramatic, as the practice has become widespread.

Over the past thirty years, concrete roofs and pads have been installed on many of the tombs, presumably to stop moisture penetration and, possibly, to aid against subsidence. As a result of this individual tomb work, architectural details (e.g. cornices) are being lost and the site is now being slowly covered in concrete in the name of tomb preservation. More research is needed, but it is likely that this practice is actually causing greater moisture retention by forcing more rising damp up into the soft brick of the individual tombs, or in the case of the roofs, entrapping existing water inside. Increased moisture will soften brick and mortar and if allowed to cycle through wet and dry states, will cause serious structural problems. This may take time to evidence because the tombs are also receiving hard, dense cement stuccos, further locking in rising damp and concealing the growing structural failure problems. Poured concrete roofs are also significantly heavier and may lead to accelerated subsidence of the tomb.

Even more disturbing is the complete destruction of the historic tombs. In an effort to clean up the ruins and the site as a whole, cemetery management has been recommending that tombs be placed in the Perpetual Care program. The restoration answer for many tombs in Perpetual Care has been to dismantle them and replace them with concrete shells and the dark closure tablet. With the success of this Save America's Treasures project, there are now proven alternatives. These significant historic resources can be preserved according to the Secretary of the Interior's Guidelines, by local masons and as cost effectively as the concrete shell approach.

Landscape Recommendations

There are walks leading to different parts of this singular cemetery, paved neatly with shells. — Lady Emmeline Stuart Wortley, ca. 1848

After evaluating the existing site-wide landscape conditions, recommendations were developed that can be broken down over a ten-year time span. These recommendations address the immediate needs of the site, revitalize the landscape and continue to underscore the historic elements so pertinent to St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery. The work in several phases can be initiated over time as funds and volunteers are available.

Historically, shell was the primary path material and was also the primary ground covering between tombs within the rows. While oyster shell is no longer available due to environmental concerns, we recommend that all exposed soil paths and patches across the cemetery be converted to a crushed limestone surface. This path treatment has been successfully impemented in the Alley 9-L tombscape restoration.

A grass district in the northeast area of the cemetery is also recommended. In this district, the only ground surface material will be grass, including those areas now used as paths between the tomb rows. To better control and direct large groups of visitors, a new hard surface path should be created as the primary circulatory loop of the site. This path currently exists in asphalt along Alley No. 1L, 1R, 8, 9, and 10 R, Center, Conti and St. Louis Alleys. Vinca, Helix, and Thyme ground cover edging should be planted to line the path. If possible, a new aggregated surface material similar in appearance to shell should be installed. The increased use of historic and substitute paving materials, with increased permeability, will add efficient water absorption while maximizing the irrigation needs of the existing plants. Where the hard concrete paths cannot be replaced, they can be softened with a proposed ground cover edge of Memorial Rose species (Rosa wichuraiana).

A variety of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrub species are proposed to include Quercus agrifolia, Magnolia grandiflora, Magnolia soulangiana, Lagerstroemia indica, Phoenix spp., Gardenia jasminoides, Rhodeodendron spp., Azaleas spp., and various annuals indigenous to New Orleans. The overall ambient temperature experienced on site is greatly reduced with improved canopy coverage from large evergreen shade trees and ground cover vegetation and would greatly improve visitor conditions.

More archival work is needed to fully develop recommendations for the restoration of the individual tomb gardens. 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 pallets encoded with the language of mourning were used as part of this design.

Early photographs of the cemetery show a wide scale presence of plantings, sometimes formally presented in beds, sometimes with a more informal relationship to specific tombs, sometimes with little or no relationship to any single tomb. Trees and shrubs were not uncommon in the cemetery, breaking the hard, urban quality of the cemetery with a combination of indigenous and exotic trees and shrubs. As future tomb restoration projects proceed, archival research should include a study of the historic plantings and family practices of adorning the tomb, so that these tomb gardens can be restored.

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

Landscape recommendations, Phase ILandscape Recommendations, Phase II