Before he was ultimately laid to rest, William Burroughs Smith spent 30 months inside the Magnolia Cemetery receiving tomb. Or, more accurately, his body did.
Receiving tombs in general are a standard historical cemetery fixture, even if Magnolia’s is unique to Charleston. If a person bit the dust, but their burial plot wasn’t readily available, their bodies were sealed in the tomb until permanent arrangements were made. Built around 1850, supposedly by renowned Charleston architect Edward C. Jones (who laid out the entire cemetery), the tomb had room for at least four bodies, so we can assume that Smith had plenty of company during his wait in the 1890s. And this was in the days before modern embalming techniques, mind you.
Like Smith, some bodies stayed in the tomb for years at a time — for a fee, of course. Smith’s estate was charged $25 a month, for a grand total of $775, for the luxury of using the receiving tomb.
In the years since Smith’s tenure, plenty of advancements have been made in the mortuary arts, and the receiving tomb hasn’t been used since about 1909. Now it sits serenely with a view of the marsh, next to graves dating back only a handful of years. But it’s not without its structural problems. The 1886 earthquake took a big toll on the building, and so did the tornadoes of 1938. More dangerously, the tomb sits on soft, unstable land, and as the earth settles, the backside of the construction is starting to slide into the pluff mud. That’s one of the reasons why the Preservation Society of Charleston selected the structure for its annual Seven to Save list.
Preservation organizations across the country typically compile endangered lists. In fact, in 2011, the City of Charleston as a whole was placed on “Watch Status” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, as part of its annual 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. In that spirit, the Preservation Society started its own “Seven to Save” list in 2011 and chose the Magnolia Cemetery receiving tomb to be part of its inaugural class.
“The real point of [the list] is to bring a lot of media attention and community attention to sites that are otherwise overlooked,” says Katherine Ferguson, the Preservation Society’s marketing and communications manager and a graduate of Clemson’s historic preservation master’s program. “With the stabilization of the receiving tomb, that’s a very tangible thing. We can see what’s deteriorating. We know what it needs.”
Each year, the Preservation Society will choose seven new sites, each with its own consequence in Charleston, whether it’s a historical church (like the New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church), a specific type of architecture (mid-century modern), or an entire neighborhood (Ansonborough). “They’re culturally interesting, they’re architecturally interesting,” explains Robert M. Gurley, the society’s director of advocacy. “And they sometimes need special attention.”
Since there are less than 10 employees on the Preservation Society’s staff, once a Seven to Save site is chosen, the group seeks out partners who can help make plans to restore or stabilize the sites. In this case, that’s the local Bennett Preservation Engineering. While this is the first receiving tomb the firm has worked on, the vast majority of structures they restore are historic masonry buildings, erected between 1840 and 1850.
The receiving tomb construction isn’t a full restoration — that will come later — but it’ll stabilize the structure. The work will put the tomb on a new, underground foundation by building a level concrete pad that will be anchored to solid rock. Instead of being supported by soft ground that’s slowly making its way into the marsh, the tomb will now be supported by pile foundation.
According to engineer Craig Bennett, the first thing his firm has to consider when rehabbing the tomb is safety, to ensure that the building or parts of it don’t collapse during or after construction. Then it’s time to think about historic preservation. “If you can’t preserve the building in a sensitive way that takes into account long-term behavior of the materials, than you’re not doing your job,” he says. They also have to make sure the building responds well to different loads — not only gravity, but to wind and potential seismic problems as well.
“Cemeteries are a unique preservation standpoint,” adds Hillary King, another engineer at the firm. “A lot of times they are neglected or vandalized, though they have a lot of important architecture. A lot of times certain elements are owned not really by the cemetery but by the families who may not have any descendants left, so cemeteries are always such a unique challenge in preservation.”
Magnolia Cemetery is the only garden cemetery in the Charleston area, meant to attract not just mourners but day-trippers who can picnic and make a day of visiting the grounds. Beverly Donald, the Magnolia Cemetery’s superintendent, credits the Preservation Society’s Seven to Save listing for bringing visitors like these to the vault. “A lot of people don’t know what a receiving tomb is, so they come looking for it after they hear about it,” she says. But as Bennett points out, if the stabilization work isn’t done now, we’ll lose the tomb forever.
Fortunately, that construction should start in the next few weeks, and Gurley says it should be finished by the fall. The 14 current Seven to Save projects each have their own timeline — some are finished, some are close, some have a lot of work ahead of them, but the Preservation Society’s goal is to complete each of the sites within three years of their selection. And a new batch for 2013 should be announced soon. (Update: Announced.)
“It really highlights a lot of times kind of forgotten landmarks,” King says of the Seven to Save program; she’s also done volunteer work with the Preservation Society. “They’ve done a really great job pointing out things that aren’t the houses that carriages drive by on a daily basis, so I think it’s a great way to draw attention to really worthy projects that need attention.”
With Seven to Save, the society hopes to enhance the experience that Charlestonians and visitors have with the city’s built environment for generations to come. As Ferguson explains, the group wants to educate the public that the receiving tomb, and the other selections, are important types of structures that are worth saving, and they hope people will start giving buildings like these a second look.
“We don’t pick easy projects … it’s an exciting challenge that we feel is worthwhile,” Gurley adds. But “Charleston is a community that appreciates its history. Our goal is that these structures become better understood and appreciated and will be ultimately restored for future generations to enjoy and add depth to their understanding of Charleston’s history.”