City defends cemetery restoration | AspenTimes.com

City defends cemetery restoration

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The restoration of Aspen’s historic Ute Cemetery will result in increased attention to the secluded spot and destroy its character in the process, critics of the project fear.

More than two dozen people, many of them alarmed by the work that has taken place at Aspen’s oldest cemetery, converged there Thursday to scrutinize the city’s efforts to rescue the graveyard from neglect.

The project goes too far, several concerned citizens told city officials during an open house on the cemetery grounds, located off Ute Avenue on the east side of town.

“I think most people here are happy to have the graves preserved. We’re talking about the degree of what’s going on,” said Georgeann Waggaman, a former city councilwoman. “You may be doing more than we’re comfortable with.”

“The city has never been accused of engaging in effective aesthetic sensibilities,” added Marty Flug.

Aspenite Bob Lewis was more pointed in his criticism.

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“We object to the idea of city employees deciding on a project they want to do and raising money for it, without ever asking the public,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s another bureaucratic boondoggle.”

“The project was approved by the City Council. It’s not the staff who should be incurring your wrath,” Mayor Helen Klanderud countered.

Others, including Elks Club members who have been involved in the project, praised the city’s efforts.

The Ute Cemetery was accepted for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year. The city has received a $99,500 grant from the State Historic Fund to help pay for a formal marker at the entrance to the site and repairs to damaged headstones, among other things.

In May, volunteers cleared vegetation that was damaging overgrown grave sites, but when broad trails were graded through the cemetery, eyebrows went up among local residents who would like the site left pretty much alone.

Waggaman said she fears the unusual cemetery, which features a haphazard layout of graves and Mother Nature’s landscaping, will lose its “sense of discovery.”

Drawing attention to the site will degrade it, predicted Jim Markalunas, a former city councilman.

“That’s why it is still what it is today. Most people didn’t know it was here,” he said. “I think it’s important you keep in mind what this cemetery is all about.”

Thursday’s open house, which gave city officials and the consultant overseeing the restoration a chance to explain the project, was scheduled after several citizens appeared before the City Council to question what is being done. The explanations offered yesterday didn’t appease everyone, but others hoped the city got the message.

City staffers are looking at some changes to the plans in response to the input, said Amy Guthrie, historic preservation officer.

Reducing the width of the planned trail and rerouting part of it that has not yet been built are under consideration, she said. And, a braided wire fence could be used instead of a picket fence where the property abuts residences. The interpretive markers planned within the cemetery could be eliminated in favor of some kind of brochure at the entrance to facilitate self-guided tours, and a second entrance to the cemetery may be eliminated so bicyclists aren’t enticed to take a shortcut through the property.

The newly graded trail that loops through the 4.6-acre cemetery, troubling to some for its suburban parklike feel, will look less intrusive when it is covered with a fine-gravel surface, said landscape architect Angie Milewski, of BHA Design in Fort Collins.

What was generally planned as a 4-foot-wide trail may be 3 feet wide instead, Guthrie said. Jeff Woods, city parks director, predicted vegetation would close in and leave a 2- to 2.5-foot-wide walkway.

A resident who yanked out a tape measure and found a 6-foot-wide swath of disturbed ground, however, appeared unconvinced.

The trail has been routed to steer general foot traffic through areas where visitors can view the graves without treading over them, said Ron Sladek, the Fort Collins-based consultant who is overseeing the restoration. Some existing footpaths in the cemetery cross right over grave sites, he pointed out.

The restoration work is not intended to destroy the cemetery’s unkempt feel, Sladek assured the assembled group.

“It’s a rustic site, no question about it, and we intend to keep it rustic,” he said.

“Any management plan for a cemetery is a tremendous balancing act,” Sladek added. “Nothing was done out here with total disregard for the site.”

In the coming weeks, Sladek will oversee restoration work on the headstones themselves. Some are tilted at odd angles; others have been damaged by vandals.

Stones that are in good shape will be cleaned and placed upright; others will be removed, repaired and returned, he said. Norman’s Memorials of Denver will handle the work. The firm’s restoration shop is located in Greeley.

The Ute Cemetery dates back to 1880 and contains an estimated 185 to 200 graves, 78 of which are marked. Most of the burials there occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s. On the crest of a hill on the rolling grounds are two rows of government-issue gravestones marking the resting places of Civil War veterans who died in Aspen after the war.

The city hopes to have the restoration work done by this fall, in time for a Veterans Day observance at the cemetery.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]

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