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Place In Mount Hope, stories waiting to be told

Mount Hope Cemetery is a 197-acre storybook of Rochester’s past, filled with the final resting places of people who built this city.
Some 400 volunteers are bringing those stories to life. The Friends of Mt. Hope Cemetery is growing the reputation of the nation’s first municipally owned Victorian cemetery and giving it the attention and TLC it deserves. They keep the place humming-fixing broken headstones and cleaning plots, gardening, raising the funds to restore buildings, doing genealogical research and leading thousands of people on tours each year.
“The city doesn’t have money to do this. It would not be done without us,” says Joan Hunt, the group’s president.
The Friends got its start in 1980 when local residents concerned about the property’s deterioration took Sen. Daniel Moynihan on a tour. He encouraged them to organize an effort to look after the historic place. Today, Mount Hope’s northern part lies within the Mt. Hope-Highland Historic District and is widely visited for two of its most famous residents, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. (A descendant of the latter visited Douglass’ grave for the first time last summer, Hunt notes.)
Part of the group’s effort is to educate the public about the historical significance of the Victorian property. Some 2,000 to 3,000 people visit the cemetery between May and October each year as part of planned tours. In addition to regular Saturday and Sunday tours, specialized programs are held for schoolchildren, community groups and tourists. Volunteers also lead tours of the unusual geology and horticulture in the cemetery.
“Thousands of people drive by there every day,” says Cynthia Howk, architectural research coordinator at the Landmark Society of Western New York. “What you see from Mt. Hope or Elmwood avenues is barely the tip of the iceberg. It’s not till you get in the cemetery that you see what a spectacular place it is.”

After-dark tours

This year the Friends are experimenting with some new offerings. On a rainy night in August, they held a twilight tour for the first time, and 70 people showed up. A first-time tour of artists’ gravesites and sculptures the same month drew 200-10 times more than expected.
On Oct. 28 and 31, the Grand Finale Luminaria Tour will be held in the northern section. Lit by flashlights and 1,000 luminaria, the tours will set out every 10 minutes from the gazebo at the northern entrance to visit the graves of Hiram Sibley, Susan B. Anthony, John Jacob Bausch, Henry Lomb and others near the Indian Trail.
The Friends have been reluctant to bring people in after dark; vandalism around Halloween is always a concern, Hunt says. But other Victorian cemeteries have conducted night tours with great success.
Ongoing favorites continue with “A Circle of Friends: An Abolitionists’ Tour of Mount Hope in 1860” on Oct. 14. The performance is a joint effort with the RMSC Players. Nine actors relive the time when Frederick Douglass returned to Rochester from England upon the sudden death of his 12-year-old daughter, Annie.
“You walk through the cemetery and you see the family plots and they have eight, 10 children. But half the children didn’t make it to 5 years old,” says Tim Cawley, a volunteer and RMSC actor.
Also on deck: Rochester’s visionaries and inventors are highlighted in an RMSC Players performance Sept. 30. And a fall foliage tour will be led by landscape architect Ed Olinger Oct. 28. (“When the fall foliage changes, the place just shines,” Howk says.)

Stacking coffins

Mount Hope was established in 1838 out of sheer necessity, Hunt says. Church graveyards in the city were crowded-coffins were stacked 14 deep-and a cholera epidemic in 1832 made city burials a health hazard. At the same time, people were starting to commune with nature as part of their religious beliefs.
So like Victorian cemeteries around the country (such as Mount Auburn in Boston and Woodlawn in Buffalo), Mount Hope was designed to look and feel like a peaceful garden. Families came on Sundays to picnic and tend to the family plot. The cemetery has the same effect today, particularly in its hillier and shadier northern portion. It’s a popular spot to run and hike, bike, walk the dog or just sit quietly.
As the cemetery grew during the 20th century, its newer section was laid out as lawn, with rows of uniform headstones on level ground. That area is to the south along Elmwood Avenue, near the University of Rochester Medical Center. A tour of the new portion will be held Oct. 21.
The graves of the famous-Bausch, Lomb, Anthony, Douglass, Sibley, Rochester-draw the most visitors. But a look at headstones of the lesser-known-there are 350,000 in Mount Hope alone-is to read Rochester’s story in full, Cawley says.
“It’s such an interesting aspect when you stop and actually look at some of the things, and if you know what a lot of the things on the headstones mean. It’s a nice slice of history.”
(Sally Parker)

09/29/06 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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