Stone Monument Conservation

On Saturday, June 1, we had our yearly stone monument conservation workshop.  We had some students from Preservation Institute Nantucket join us and these are some of the stones we worked on at Lot 471, the Captain Henry C. Pinkham Lot.  The captain, his first wife, and his second wife had their stones cleaned with a special cleaner specifically made for stone conservation.  One must be trained in cleaning and use the proper tools and cleaner.  One must also have permission form the cemetery to clean a stone – even of one’s own family – and one must never clean stones without permission from family members or descendants. 

There are several other people buried in the lot – their stones either never existed or unfortunately and sadly, went missing.  One of these family members was a carpenter who died in his early 50s in the Boston-area.  My theory about (at least) his lack of a stone is this: since Nantucket by the time he was in his 30s was in a deep economic downturn – there were only about 2,000 people left on the island – he left the island to find work.  There would not have been much for a carpenter here on island.  Perhaps he has no stone as he and his family could not afford one.

There are two other stones we chose not to clean during the workshop as they are loose and wobble where they attach to the foot.  But, another stone, the small lamb, we also cleaned.  It is the burial site of young Arthur, a one-year old child, the grandson of Henry Pinkham.  A lamb of course was a common symbol used for children who died.  At some point recently, someone planted a daffodil bulb at the base of the stone.  And, I wonder, if this person has been doing the same for other burial sites of children.


Open. Open. Completed!

There has been a lot going on!

Eileen McGrath and Nat Philbrick cut the ribbon.

OPEN: On May 25th, we had our opening reception to thank donors and contractors who worked on converting our Science Library into our new Research Center – a multi-year project that I have documented on this blog.

A big thank you to our donors and all the women and men who completed the work on the building.  I have listed them several times before but our thanks are so very deep.  We could have not have done it without all of them!

We will be having special workshops and open collection events throughout the summer – and some of our lectures will be held in the Research Center as well.  So check out our calendar online.  We hope to see you at one – or multiples!

Interior of Research Center.

OPEN:  Mitchell House is open for the season!  Come take a look and have a tour.  If you have not been in in some time, or never (tsk tsk), now is the time with Maria’s 200th Birthday this year!  Don’t just walk through the home she lived in – walk through the home she was born in 200 years ago!

COMPLETED: After another multi-year process, I am happy to report that the wrought iron fence at the Mitchell Family lot at Prospect Hill Cemetery has been completed and installed!  This was a community Preservation Act funded project.  The stone bases for the fence were realigned by Neil Patterson and his crew several years ago and DeAngelis Ironwork of Boston restored the fence using a historic photograph from our collection.  It is not an exact reproduction as such a thing was completely cost prohibitive unfortunately but it speaks to the fence that was once there – just a bit simpler – using exiting patterns/molds.


Oh and wait!  Did I mention we have new signs?



Talking to Maria Mitchell, or Speaking to the Dead

I originally posted this a few years ago and last week, the Inquirer and Mirror printed an article on the stone monuments at Prospect Hill Cemetery.  Thus, I thought I would re-post this – something I don’t often do.  But it continues to be very important.  More recently, in May, I worked with some island Girl Scouts to clean the stones of Nantucket veterans.  While the process cleans the stones, it does not bring them back to what they once were – that’s not reversible and also, in conservation you never bring it back to the perfect from when it began.  That’s not the point.  The other part of cleaning the stones is that it protects them for three to five years or more from new growth.  Lichen and its continued growth slowly obliterates the face of the stone physically.  I will be doing another workshop in June with the Prospect Hill Cemetery so stay tuned.  I have been doing this for at least a decade now – not three as the paper wrote – and I have been trained by a conservator!  And remember – you can never clean stones that you either don’t have permission to clean or that don’t belong to your family.  You need to seek permission first from the cemetery sextant.

No, the curator has not gone completely mad.  But when you are working on a stone monument at the cemetery, you feel compelled to talk to Maria and her family.  You see, I am cleaning their grave markers.  Back in 2005, with funding from the Community Preservation Act, I worked with a stone conservator to clean the stone monuments of the Mitchell family correctly.  Unfortunately, people think that bleach is a good idea.  It’s not.  It eats away at the stone causing irreversible harm.  (And by the way, taking rubbings of gravestones is illegal.)

As a way to share the knowledge of properly cleaning a historic stone monument, we opened the process as a workshop – which was underwritten by the Community Preservation Act – during Preservation Month.  We had a wonderful turnout, including descendants of the Mitchell family and a professor of microbiology who, while upset we were removing excellent samples of lichens from the stones, regaled us with all the names of the lichens we were removing and all sorts of interesting facts about them.  You see, while a microbiologist might think they are fantastic and that Nantucket’s cemeteries have some of the best lichen growths, a conservator sees lichen as the bane of the stones existence!  Growths lock in moisture and help to more quickly erode the facades of the stones.

Stone before cleaning.

So, with the beautiful fall weather, I have been back at work cleaning the stones with a special environmentally and conservation friendly cleaner made just for such a job.  If you are interested in learning more, or possibly participating in a workshop this spring to learn how to do this, please contact me.

And remember, it’s okay to speak to them – I think they like the visit.

The same stone after cleaning.


Honoring Our Veterans

Work begins.

On May 16, 2017 from 6-8PM, I had the honor of working with Nantucket Girl Scout Troops 80978 and 81174.  For over a decade, I have been working to clean the stones of not just the Mitchells, but other Nantucketers buried at Prospect Hill Cemetery with the Prospect Hill Cemetery historian, Paula Levy.  She and I first crossed paths when I offered a stone cleaning workshop via the Mitchell House and she was one of the attendees.  Since then, we have cleaned roughly twenty or so stones and worked on a restoration project to restore the fences at two family plots, one of them being the Mitchell family plot.

Work continues.

Our work together brought about a discussion of Memorial Day services.  The Sons of the American Legion and the island Scouts all come together to put flags and red geraniums at the graves of island veterans.  The Memorial Day Parade ends with a service at the Soldiers’ Lot burial site.  We thought it would be nice for the Scouts to play a larger role in attending to the veterans and also to provide them with some background on them and a sense of ownership.  So, I reached out to some scout leaders and the Girl Scout troops noted above joined in.  The Legion provided the funds for the supplies and Paula came and spoke to them briefly about the Soldiers’ Lot and the men buried there.  And then, I gave them another brief overview of how to clean – this time hands-on rather than explaining it at a meeting.  Then, we got to work – Scouts, Scout leaders, mothers.  We managed to clean the stones of all the men interred there – Civil War veterans, WWI veterans, VietNam veterans and more.  About eighteen monuments were cleaned of their lichen and mosses and protected from further damage.  The stones will lighten some – the point is not to make them pristine or bright white.  And the lichen has been removed thus stopping further damage from it.  You will note a few that are whiter than others – several are newer stones and others may have been cleaned in the past by others though it looks like they were done with harsh chemicals unfortunately.  Remember, never clean stones without permission from the cemetery sexton.  DO not clean stones of people other than your family. And most importantly, make sure you have been trained first and have the right tools, specifically a cleaner that is appropriate for the work (bleach is a BIG no-no).

Thank you to the Scout and the Legion, as well as troop leaders and parents!


Work completed.

Work Has Begun at the Mitchell Lot at Prospect Hill Cemetery!

Stone reset PHC

It will take quite a bit of time but happily, on August 26th, the stone work was begun at the Prospect Hill Cemetery to restore the wrought iron fence at the Mitchell family lot where William and Lydia Mitchell, along with Maria, her oldest brother Andrew, her oldest sister Sally, and her aunt and namesake Maria Coleman are all buried. Neil Patterson and his crew will be re-setting the granite stones so that DeAngelis Ironwork of Boston can restore the wrought iron fence that once ringed the lot. It likely fell into disrepair in the early twentieth century and went for scrap metal, perhaps for the war effort. Many of the lots, if not all of them, were surrounded by fences at Prospect Hill.

Granite with wrought iron fence "ghosting"

Using a historic photo that was found in a Maria Mitchell scrapbook, we are restoring the fence to the best of our ability – the image is a little grainy and blurry so some details have been lost. This work is all funded by a Community Preservation Act grant that Jascin Leonardo Finger, Curator of the Mitchell House, Archives and Special Collections wrote for Fiscal Year 2013. The grant included restoration of the fence at the Hadwen lot at Prospect Hill, as well as the conservation of the wrought iron fence at the Coffin School on Winter Street. Since the same ironwork and stone masons would be used, a collaborative ask was created. For approximately a decade, the Mitchell House curator has been collaborating with Prospect Hill and its historian, Paula Lundy Levy, offering stone cleaning workshops for the public that illustrate hands-on how to properly clean historic gravestones. The restoration of the fences and the collaborative grant were a natural progression of their work together and long overdue – the family’s deserve to have their resting place restored to what it once was. Stay tuned as we bring you more information and images as the work progresses! And thank you, to the Community Preservation Committee, Neil Patterson and Crew, and DeAngelis Ironwork!