Cedar Hill steps crumbling

Published 11:12 pm Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A set of cement steps in Cedar Hill Cemetery is one of the focal points of the historic burial ground.

Flanked by a mausoleum on one side and the stately resting place of a Confederate general on the other, the stairs face the Confederate monument at the entrance to the cemetery, and can be seen by drivers on North Main Street looking down Mahan Street.

However, the stairs are crumbling under visitors’ feet, and the city is at odds with some community groups over how to fix the problem.

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“The steps for a long time have been a hazard,” said Lee Hart, a past commander of the Tom Smith Camp of Sons of Confederate Veterans. The group, and Hart himself, invest countless volunteer hours helping maintain the cemetery where more than 400 Confederate veterans are buried.

“It is a safety issue,” Hart said of the steps. He fears that a woman will catch her heel on one of the many cracks or holes in the stairs and be injured.

The steps – which Hart estimates were constructed sometime before 1920 – are made of concrete, and were poured on terraced dirt with no proper foundation, Hart said. Over the years, water has gotten into the concrete and frozen during the winter, resulting in hundreds of cracks and holes in the sidewalls. On the steps themselves, chunks are missing, and a crack goes down the middle of almost half of the staircase. Grass, weeds and young trees are growing out of the cracks, which eventually will erode the concrete even further.

In a letter last week to City Council members, City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn recommended spending $2,000 to repair the steps. Repair, however, is not a viable option, Hart said.

“They have been patched before,” Hart said. “They may just as well take the $2,000 and spend it at Hardee’s or something.”

Cuffee-Glenn explained in her letter that the city does not have the money to replace the steps. A concrete replacement would cost about $10,000, and a granite replacement – which the Tom Smith Camp prefers – would be about $45,000.

A possible source of funding would be to obtain City Council approval to transfer the funds from the cemetery’s perpetual care account, which currently has a balance of about $1.06 million. However, the account does not currently generate enough interest on investments to cover the cost of perpetual maintenance at Cedar Hill and Holly Lawn cemeteries, Cuffee-Glenn noted.

Hart said that the Tom Smith Camp offered to fund part of the project a few years ago, when the steps first became an issue. Hart had a detailed estimate prepared, which included about $45,000 for the demolition, masonry work and granite. Hart said he was working with former city manager Jim Vacalis on the project before Vacalis retired.

Hart still feels confident that individuals and civic groups in Suffolk would be willing to help with the cost to replace the steps. The Tom Smith Camp has raised more than $20,000 to restore other parts of the cemetery, completely without city help, he said.

“They can get the support of local organizations, I feel sure,” Hart said. “Even if the city can’t fund it all, there’s a lot of people that care about the cemetery.”

Hart said it is imperative that the steps be replaced.

“I just am really disturbed over the fact they want to spend $2,000 to patch up some cracks,” he said.

“They’re beyond patching. Patching them is not worth five cents.”