Cedar Rapids road project signals death knell for historic stone wall at Oak Hill Cemetery
Updated Nov. 5, 2022, with the history of the cemetery’s stone entrance and former president, Lawson Daniels.
By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – A construction project on Mount Vernon Road SE will dramatically alter the city’s oldest cemetery.
Established in 1854, Oak Hill Cemetery, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will lose the entire stretch of its historic fieldstone wall along Mount Vernon Road under the plans.
The National Register listing specifically cites the stone wall as a contributing historic structure and city officials have been aware of the need to relocate, or remove, the wall for years for the proposed project.
City Council members voted unanimously last month to proceed with sidewalk construction that calls for removal of the wall, even as the presentation entirely omitted the historic nature of the stone wall and the cemetery itself.
Members of the Cedar Rapids Historic Preservation Commission were notified of the City Council meeting last week, after the council meeting had already taken place.
Community Development Planner Adam Lindenlaub said the commission heard a presentation regarding the project in 2018. The entire membership of the commission has changed since that time.
Cedar Rapids City Engineer Brenna Fall said in an email that city staff knew about the National Register listing, but did not go into details during last month’s public hearing because the agenda item was related to the assessment for the new sidewalk that is part of the project.
Removal of the wall was discussed during the 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.
The City Council unanimously approved the resolution for the street pavement improvements project along Mount Vernon Road from 14th Street to 20th Street SE.
Under the plans, the 120-foot stretch of the stone wall will be removed along Mount Vernon Road, plus a 19-foot section toward the cemetery gates. The gates and gate house should not be affected by the construction.
Oak Hill Cemetery will be assessed $28,000 for the sidewalk portion of the project, which will run alongside the cemetery.
No members of the public spoke during the public hearing.
Linda Langston, one of just two remaining members on the Oak Hill Cemetery’s board of directors, said notice of the public hearing was sent to the street address of the cemetery, which has no mailbox, rather than its P.O. box, where mail is received.
Fall called the misdirected notification “inadvertent,” adding that staff reached out directly to the cemetery board before the meeting. Langston, however, said word of the public hearing came too late for cemetery representatives to rearrange their schedules to attend.
Langston, a volunteer on the board along with C. John Linge, said not only will the stone wall be removed under the plans, but about 20 mature pine trees along Mount Vernon Road, which survived Iowa’s hurricane-strength derecho windstorm in 2020, will be removed for the project.
The cemetery itself is still recovering from the derecho and with a limited budget of about $35,000 annually, will have difficulty paying the $28,000 sidewalk assessment, she added.
Langston said the city offered a low condemnation offer for taking the trees and cemetery property for the project as well as the wall removal; work that the city expects to have completed by the cemetery.
Relocating the wall would not be financially feasible for the cemetery, she said.
Fall said a stone mason determined the wall was in “very bad condition” and that repairing the wall in its current location would require replacement of a majority of the original material, which could impact its historic integrity.
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.
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.
The Cedar Rapids architectural firm of Josselyn & Taylor designed the stone front entrance and decorative iron gate in the early 1900s for prominent resident Lawson Daniels, who served as Oak Hill Cemetery president. According to the cemetery’s website, some of the stones for the wall were reportedly brought into town by local farmers.
Oak Hill Cemetery is the final resting place for Cedar Rapids pioneers such as Judge George Greene and Sampson Bever, war veterans, several victims of the 1919 Douglas Starch Works explosion in Cedar Rapids and many others.
Fall noted that the National Register status will be discussed during the next public hearing on the project, which is scheduled to bid in February.
She said construction will begin as soon as weather permits, with the project segment from 14th Street SE to 17th Street constructed in 2023 and the segment from 17th Street SE to 20th Street in 2024.
Listing on the National Register of Historic Places offers no protection from changes to a property, even including demolition.
The Mount Vernon Road project includes roadway, water, sanitary sewer, traffic signal replacements, median improvements, streetscaping and ADA-accessible sidewalks from 14th Street to 20th Street at a total estimated cost of about $6.8 million.
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Find more about the history and origins of the cemetery’s stone entrance, below.
Following is information posted by Oak Hill Cemetery regarding the origins of the stone entrance:
Found within the notes of the Board of Directors A special meeting of the directors of the Oak Hill Cemetery Company was held at the office of the company Monday, June 23, 1906 at 1:30 p.m. Present: John S. Ely, George B Douglas, W. D Douglas being all surviving directors. George B. Douglas, Vice President in the chair and W. D. Douglas acting secretary Pro tem. The following resolution was unanimously adopted on motion of W. D Douglas: Mr. Lawson Daniels, President and Treasurer of this company died June 16th 1906 and Mr. Charles Weare, the Secretary of this Company died June 19th 1906. In recording the deaths of these two men, we, their associates and surviving directors of this Company, realize what an affliction has visited us and what a sweeping loss has been sustained. This memorial which we spread on the records of the Company is but a feeble attempt to express what this community has lost, what this Company has suffered and what ties of friendship have been broken. 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. 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. As friends and associates our loss is to be measured by our long time relationship with these men of loyal friendships and sterling integrity. We realize that with their deaths the former generation has passed away, the generation of founders and pioneers, and upon us, their successors, devolves the conduct of institutions which they have established. We continue in this work with earnest hope that our labors may in a measure product results commensurate with the heritage we have received.
From the The Cedar Rapids Daily Republican Tuesday, March 24,1908 HANDSOME NEW ENTRANCE TO BE ERECTED AT OAK HILL New Iron Gateway and a Shelter House of Boulders with a Tile Roof A new gateway and shelter house at the entrance to Oak Hill Cemetery is one of the added beauties to Cedar Rapids which has been made possible through the kindness of Mrs. Lawson Daniels. The late Lawson Daniels at various times in his life expressed a wish that there might be a better gateway at the entrance and before his death he asked that this be done although he did not provide for it in his will. The firm of Josselyn and Taylor architects have drawn up the plans for this new entrance and already the stones to be used in its construction are being hauled to the place. The gateway contemplated is one of granite boulder posts with an iron gate and a shelter house of boulders with a tile roof. The entrance will be placed about one-half-block this side of the present entrance, the land having been secured for this purpose.
More about Lawson Daniels, provided by Oak Hill Cemetery:
In addition to the family donation to the City of Cedar Rapids which made Daniels Park a reality, what do we know about Lawson Daniels? According to Portrait and Biographical Album of Linn County Iowa dated 1887 we find the following: Lawson Daniels joined his brothers already residing in Linn County in 1848 On arriving here he engaged in the mercantile business with his brother Lowell, and continued the same until 1880. In 1883, in company with others, he organized and established the Cedar Rapids Savings Bank. His role was as a stockholder, and has acted as Vice President of the organization. Mr. Daniels has invested heavily in city property with a view to improve and help build up the city. He was a stockholder and Secretary of the Oak Hill Cemetery Company. The Daniels residence was located at No. 179 First Avenue. Mr. Daniels held the office of Postmaster of Cedar Rapids from the year 1850 to 1854. He was a stockholder in the Water-Works. Upon the building of the Chicago, Iowa & Nebraska Railroad from Clinton to Cedar Rapids, he and his brother took stock to assist in carrying out the work. He was Secretary of the Cedar Rapids Bridge Company, and also of the Cedar Rapids Transportation Company, during their existence.