Keeping Aspen Grove Cemetery alive
July 6, 2009
ASPEN – Aspen Grove Cemetery, the resting place for some of the town’s most notable figures, is in a state of disrepair and the city is taking steps to preserve the 119-year-old graveyard.
Ron Sladek, who specializes in the preservation of historic cemeteries, has been hired by the city of Aspen to document hundreds of grave sites and to help devise a preservation plan for the cemetery.
The City Council has earmarked $35,801 for the work, and the Colorado Historical Society has given a matching grant for the same amount.
Sladek began his work last summer and was at the 3-acre cemetery last week documenting each grave marker, as well as assessing the overall condition of the property, which is owned by the Aspen Grove Cemetery Association.
The condition of the cemetery is in an advanced state of deterioration, with biological overgrowth and extreme damage to many of the grave markers. The cemetery’s condition poses a challenge to the nonprofit association that is operated by a small group of older locals who are charged with maintaining the grounds.
Between 700 and 1,000 Aspen residents who lived here during the mining era, post World War II and as recently as the last few years are buried at the cemetery, established in 1890.
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Aspen Grove Cemetery was a planned site designed and intended for the middle and upper classes. Some of Aspen’s early mayors are buried there, as well as mine owners, professionals and business people.
Aspen visionaries Elizabeth and Walter Paepcke, Fritz and Fabi Benedict, as well as Bauhaus artist Herbert Bayer, famed photographer Ferenc Berko and ski legend Friedl Pfeifer are some of the notable names that are inscribed on headstones at Aspen Grove Cemetery.
All of their graves are overrun with weeds and tall grass. Mature aspen trees threaten to fall and smash grave markers that have been there for more than 100 years.
“We are trying to do something that makes this place accessible and viewable 100 years from now,” Sladek said.
The city’s first goal is to mitigate immediate threats to gravestones by overgrown vegetation and stabilize severely deteriorated objects.
“The key is to find a balance by keeping it lush and respecting the ecosystem here but also make it viewable,” said Sara Adams, the city’s preservation planner. “This is a huge asset for the community to know what is up here.”
The preservation plan, which needs approval by the City Council and the state historical society, will address conservation and maintenance efforts on the property for the future.
That will likely involve removing brush around headstones and a light cleaning of grave markers. Headstones that need to be repaired or restored also will be included in the plan.
City officials plan to ask for another state grant to carry the plan forward, and will rely upon the community to help clean up the site.
Aspen Grove, which is the second oldest cemetery in Aspen (Ute Cemetery was founded in 1880), has never undergone any formal preservation effort.
Through his research thus far, Sladek has determined that there are hundreds of unmarked graves throughout the cemetery.
Of the graves that do have markers, Sladek is documenting the condition of the headstones, their architectural and carving styles, as well as what materials they were made of. All grave markers also will be photographed and measured.
“This is the most extensive planning project on a cemetery in Colorado,” Sladek said.
Sladek also is researching old newspaper articles and records at the Aspen Historical Society to learn more about who locals were and how they died. That information will eventually be documented and posted on the city’s website.
“It’s fascinating … people all of a sudden come alive,” Sladek said of his research. “There are some sad stories about what happened to them.”
It appears that people from the mining era and Aspen’s quiet years were fascinated with death, and often put the cause of their demise on the grave markers. Also notable is that the dates of their births were not inscribed but the time they were alive is recorded by years, months and days on the headstones.
“Death was always chasing them,” Sladek of Aspen’s early pioneers, adding that many perished in mining accidents, train wrecks and from disease.