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Iron Fences Repair & Maintenance Plan at Salem Pioneer Cemetery

January 30, 2019

The Oregon Commission on Historic Cemeteries awarded a 2017 match-fund grant of $1,300 to the City of Salem Public Works Department for professional assessment of five historic cast-iron and two wrought-iron burial plot fences in Salem Pioneer Cemetery.  The cemetery, a property of seventeen acres founded by Chemeketa Lodge No. 1, Independent Order of Odd Fellows in 1854, is a City landmark enrolled in the National Register of Historic Places.  It came under public ownership in 1986.  The grant allowed the City to engage an architectural conservator to prepare guidelines for repair and ongoing maintenance of the historic fences in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.      

The burial plot of the James I. Thompson family is enclosed by a common double-rail cast-iron “gas pipe” fencing having decorative railing sleeves at mid-section. Posts are mounted on a cut stone curb.

Historical architect Robert Dortignacq, A.I.A., of Portland, analyzed and proposed corrective treatment for each enclosure and contacted nine American foundries and iron companies experienced in restoration of architectural iron.  It was decided to produce the 22-page planning document as a resource, rather than a library-shelf report, so that it could be broadly available and updated as needed to guide cemetery stewards in putting work out to bid or placing certain work in the hands of experienced personnel supported by volunteers.  Cost estimates for rehabilitating each enclosure were incorporated also.

The Metal Craft Repair, Treatment and Maintenance Plan for Salem Pioneer Cemetery distills essential guidance for treatment of architectural iron work published by the National Park Service, Chicora Foundation, and Association for Gravestone Studies.  Plan drawings and photographs are included to illustrate the scale and provide general views of each enclosure as well as close-up details of such problems as gates separated from railings and posts that have lost their anchorage in masonry foundations.

The original Oregon manufacturer of the DeVol plot fence is no longer in operation. Cast-iron panels manufactured from the same historic pattern were located at the Lawler Machine & Foundary Co.

The consultant’s contact with foundries across the country showed that, occasionally, ironwork cast from historic patterns is still available through a supplier.  In Salem Pioneer Cemetery, panel sections were needed to fill gaps in one highly decorated cast-iron fence in the cemetery dating from the 1880s.  The consultant found matching panels were still in stock through the Lawler Machine & Foundry Co. in Birmingham, Alabama.  Custom casting required to authentically replicate missing ornamental features no longer in supply can add up to considerable expense.  Among his contacts, the consultant could not find a ready-made source for foliated and clasped-hands pipe rail section sleeves for commonplace gas-pipe fences.  Such ornaments often are found rusted-through and broken away in whole or in part.  Wrought iron is treated differently, but the fundamental rule in maintaining cast-iron fences in good repair is to keep all elements protected from exposure to water and air by careful preparation, protective coatings of primer and paint, and reapplying paint on a sound surface on a timely, recurring basis. 

Note:  Although Mr. Dortignacq’s Metal Craft Repair, Treatment and Maintenance Plan Project was completed on April 20, 2018, qualified personnel were not available to begin putting the plan into practice in the 2018 field season.  Implementation is expected to begin in March, 2019 under the joint supervision of the City’s contractor of record and an experienced metal craftsman as sub-contractor.

Written by: Elisabeth Potter, Friends of Pioneer Cemetery

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