CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The city of Cedar Rapids has forged ahead with a project that included removing Oak Hill Cemetery’s historic stone wall.
About 20 towering pine trees, which survived Iowa’s hurricane-strength derecho windstorm in 2020, also have been removed alongside the cemetery, at 1705 Mount Vernon Rd. SE.
Both were cleared to make way for an ADA-accessible sidewalk next to the cemetery, part of the city’s Mount Vernon Road project, which also includes roadway, water, sanitary sewer, traffic signal replacements, median improvements and streetscaping at a total estimated cost of about $6.8 million.
Already, sidewalks connect on the other side of Mount Vernon Road and the parcel where the trees and fieldstone wall were removed, from 15th Street to 19th Street, will provide access to nothing other than the cemetery.
Save CR Heritage, an all-volunteer nonprofit that works to preserve the city’s historic assets, drew attention to the impending removal of the stone wall in November, but the City Council voted to continue with the project.
The Cedar Rapids architectural firm of Josselyn & Taylor designed the cemetery’s stone front entrance and decorative iron gate in the early 1900s in honor of prominent resident Lawson Daniels, who served as Oak Hill Cemetery president. According to the cemetery’s website, some of the large field stones for the wall were brought into town by local farmers.
Prominent Chicago landscape architect Horace W.S. Cleveland designed the cemetery’s picturesque landscape in the late 1800s and renowned landscape architect O.C. Simonds was hired in the early 1900s for further design work.
Established in 1854, Oak Hill Cemetery specifically cites the stone wall as a contributing historic structure in its listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and city officials have been aware of the need to relocate, or remove, the wall for years for the proposed project.
Removal of the 120-foot stretch of the wall and a 19-foot section toward the cemetery gates was discussed during an October 2022 public hearing in front of the council, and a photo of the stone wall was even included in the presentation, but no mention was made of its historic importance. Cemetery officials have said they could not afford to relocate the wall.
The city’s Historic Preservation Commission was notified of the public hearing after it had taken place.
At the October meeting, the City Council unanimously approved the resolution for the street pavement improvements project along Mount Vernon Road from 14th Street to 20th Street SE. While Oak Hill Cemetery was going to be assessed $28,000 for the sidewalk portion that will run alongside the cemetery, Linda Langston, one of two board members of the cemetery, said negotiations negated that assessment.
Langston said the city also agreed to maintain the forthcoming sidewalk, a responsibility typically given to the property owners.
She noted that some of the stones were kept to do finish work on the jagged portion of the remaining part of the wall, and the capstones were retained for a potential future landscaping project that would pay tribute to the stone wall. Bids for stone masonry are being pursued, so Langston did not have a timeline for when the work would be completed.
The city agreed to reimburse the cemetery for the demolition of the wall, Langston added, which took place when the ground was still frozen, one month sooner than she would have preferred and prior to what had been scheduled to happen.
“It was sad,” she said, “but a prolonged fight wasn’t going to be good for anybody.”
New trees will be planted in the cemetery and the utility lines alongside the cemetery will be buried, which will help the overall appearance, she said.
Langston said the city will also extend water and sewer to the cemetery, which it hasn’t previously had.
She anticipates a capital campaign to raise money for a new cemetery office and repairs to the roads and historic gatehouse, with a preliminary goal of $1.5 million.
Already, the cemetery caretaker’s house, storage shed and barn have been demolished in recent years, as the buildings – also considered contributing structures on the National Register listing – fell into disrepair.
Listing on the National Register of Historic Places offers no protection from changes to a property, even including demolition.
City officials said construction will begin as soon as weather permits, with the segment from 14th Street to 17th Street SE constructed this year and the segment from 17th Street to 20th Street SE in 2024.
According to notes from the cemetery’s Board of Directors meeting on June 23, 1906, Lawson Daniels, president and treasurer of the cemetery company, died June 16, 1906, and Charles Weare, secretary of the company, died June 19, 1906.
“From the very beginning of this city, through all of the many trials and difficulties of pioneer life, through the struggles of more recent times, for nearly sixty years these two men have stood together, devoting their labors to the upbuilding of the city and the best interests of the community,” the record stated. “Connected with the management of this Company from its inception, for forty years they have officially guided its affairs. Whatever success has been attained in providing and beautifying Oak Hill Cemetery as a final resting place for our dead is due in greatest measure to the efforts of Mr. Daniels and Mr. Weare.”