Gus Chan, The Plain DealerLinda Litto, president of the Friends of the Monroe Street Cemetery Foundation, views a monument to John Michael Kick, the first Cleveland policeman killed in the line of duty.
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Voices — not of the dead but for the dead — have persuaded Cleveland to sink money into three aged municipal cemeteries filled with prominent historical figures.
The city will withdraw $2.3 million from a cemetery endowment fund, more than a third of the principal, largely to fix three old graveyards: Erie, off downtown’s East Ninth Street; Woodland, located on Woodland Avenue between East 66th and East 71st streets; and Monroe Street in the West Side’s Ohio City neighborhood.
Work, likely to begin in the spring, will cover major projects magnified in scope by decades of neglect. More than half the money will pay to rebuild stone gatehouses that have fallen apart or are on their way.
Ken Silliman, Mayor Frank Jackson’s chief of staff, said the city will lose about $120,000 a year in endowment interest that would otherwise go to more basic upkeep. But he said proposed price increases for burial plots should easily compensate.
Cleveland owns 12 cemeteries, 11 of them more than a century old. The cemeteries are home to about 400,000 departed. only West Park and Cleveland Memorial Gardens, located in suburban Highland Hills, still have gravesites available for purchase.
Council President Martin J. Sweeney credited the city’s decision to lobbying by small foundations that advocate for the Woodland and Monroe Street cemeteries and help maintain the properties as much as possible.
Representatives were around the table as a council committee recently reviewed the plan. Several women concerned about Monroe Street wore T-shirts declaring “I’m not dead yet,” a testament to their passion.
The volunteers grasp Cleveland’s financial plight but believe the city should give the cemeteries’ occupants — some of whom are significant to national and local history — more fitting burial grounds.
Woodland’s 82,000 graves include those of two Ohio governors — Reuben Wood and John Brough — and four Cleveland mayors: George Senter, John Farley, George Gardner and Robert Blee. The 60 acres are also the final resting place of Joseph Briggs, a Civil War-era Cleveland postmaster who conceived the idea of home mail delivery.
The cemetery, opened in 1853, holds a notable place in black history. Among those buried there are pioneering black state legislators John Patterson Green and William Clifford, a number of black Civil War veterans and Sara Lucy Bagby Johnson, the last person prosecuted under the federal Fugitive Slave Act.
Michelle Day lives in eastern Lake County, but three generations of her family, including her paternal grandparents, are buried in Woodland. she started the cemetery foundation about five years ago.
Day said that the city mows the grass and that volunteers, many of them lent by unions, do painting and mausoleum roof repair.
But she yearns for reconstruction of the gatehouse, dismantled in the 1990s after it began to lean perilously toward Woodland Avenue. The pieces were numbered in the hope of putting the building back together, but they remain rubble on the site.
“It’s on the National Register of Historic Places,” Day said of the gatehouse. “Why have it sitting in a pile in a cemetery?”
Gus Chan, The Plain Dealer”I just love it. I love to walk in here. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful. I love to read books. when I do, I come in here and sit on a bench,” says Monroe Street Foundation President Lindo Litto.
Monroe Street Cemetery dates to 1836. its 13-plus acres, the largest green space in the neighborhood, are tucked between a rail line, an industrial building and curbside Victorian houses.
Among those buried there are John Michael Kick, the first Cleveland policeman killed in the line of duty. He died in 1875, two days after being shot while chasing six burglars. Other notables include veterans from the Revolutionary War, Civil War and Spanish-American War; William Castle, the last mayor of once-independent Ohio City and the 14th mayor of Cleveland; and a previous era’s Jim Thome, active with the American Anti-Slavery Society.
Monroe Street Foundation President Linda Litto, an Ohio City resident, often goes to the cemetery and reflects beneath the low-hanging boughs of sturdy, gnarled old trees.
“I just love it. I love to walk in here. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful,” Litto said during a recent visit. “I love to read books. when I do, I come in here and sit on a bench.”
As she spoke, she passed markers that break down Ohio City’s ancestral mix: Irish, German and Hungarian, Slovak, Dutch, English and Scottish. Faded epitaphs tell stories of families wiped out by untamed disease.
The prose can be elaborate — for example: “William Wight is my name and Scotland is my nation; Heaven is my dwelling place and God for my salvation.” or from the grieving husband of Addeline Pelton, who died in 1827 at the age of 22: “Benevolent she lived, virtuous she died; Sow lies at rest, her infant by her side.”
Litto credits the city with maintaining the property the best it can. her group helps by planting flowers or repairing mausoleums.
But time, the elements and vandals take their toll, shifting or toppling some of the monuments. Mausoleums are boarded.
A side wall of the Gothic gatehouse collapsed in March 2010, and the structure is still braced by weathered wood. a mesh fence and concrete barriers cordon off the building and main entrance to prevent injuries.
Cleveland convention officials and Emerging Chefs, rising stars on the area’s restaurant scene, erected tents in the cemetery for an Oct. 14 “Feast of the Deceased.” The nighttime Halloween-themed showcase drew about 90 foodies, including more than a dozen culinary critics from the United States and Canada.
David Moss, the group’s publicist, said the event likely will be repeated and return to Monroe Street, just the kind of obscure venue the chefs enjoy spotlighting. He considers the cemetery to be a gem but recognizes that it cries out for polish.
“It certainly could use some attention,” he said. “It’s sad, the state some of the structures are in.”
Follow Thomas Ott on Twitter @thomasott1.