PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — By the end of the day Monday, 37 tombstones and historical markers at downtown Pensacola’s St. Michael’s Cemetery were repaired and restored after sustaining varying amounts of damage during Hurricane Sally in September.
Monday marked a significant day in a restoration project that began in March and won’t conclude for some time. As Escambia County’s 200th anniversary approaches, University of West Florida historical archaeologist Margo Stringfield said the timing to fix some of the city’s oldest, most historic markers was apt.
“The total amount of damage down here, I would say was in the vicinity of around $70,000,” she said Monday morning, surrounded by contracted preservation specialists and fellow UWF assessors. “The wind did most of the work. We did not have any big tree falls, but we did have big limbs fall.”
The Riera Family Mausoleum — constructed in the mid-1800s — is one of the cemetery’s most eye-catching monuments, and also one that took a considerable beating during Sally. But crews were hard at work Monday getting it back up to snuff.
“The area on this monument that is hollow now was filled with sandstone, and it came down and crashed on top of this rail wall and the sidewalk,” said West Caldwell, who serves on the Historic St. Michael’s Cemetery Foundation Board of Trustees. “But what we’ve done is, we’ve ordered new limestone that will be placed exactly like the old limestone was, original to the tomb.”
The Riera tomb includes descendants of Jose and Antonio Riera, who were young boys living with shopkeepers Jose and Teresa Roche in 1820 in Pensacola. The Rieras became prominent merchants in Pensacola through much of the 19th century.
The kind of restoration work that’s being periodically done at St. Michael’s would not be possible without the St. Michael’s Cemetery Foundation, which not only has steadily raised and saved donations to prepare for emergencies like Sally, but also has received funding from Escambia County’s tourist development fund and the state.
“We also receive funding from the state of Florida because this is a state park,” Stringfield said. “So we have a variety of funding that kicks in.”
Hurricane or no hurricane, St. Michael’s, the oldest cemetery in Pensacola, needs to receive a steady stream of maintenance throughout the year due to the gravestones’ general vulnerability.
Decades and decades of maintenance have actually made it so when a storm does strike down these historical markers, the breaks are usually clean and relatively easy to fix, according to Emily Ford with Oak and Laurel Cemetery Preservation, the contracted cemetery preservation company responsible for most of this year’s project.
“For this specific cemetery, there’s been such a long legacy of care here so you’re never really dealing with something that’s been neglected,” Ford said Monday. “Actually, a lot of the stones that broke have been repaired in the past, and they broke the way that they should. We could simply just remove the old material, add new material and put them back together. I mean, that’s really unusual.”
As she strolled around a cemetery that is in much better shape that it was last winter, when it temporarily closed for three months, Stringfield said it was great to see one of Pensacola’s most incredible historical attractions restored.
“We view this as an outdoor museum, and it’s also a beautiful green space in the heart of the urban environment,” Stringfield said. “In here, you have got stones that represent the people that were here. These are people that lived in Pensacola and contributed to how our community was formed.”
Coming up May 11, as part of the events leading up to the county’s 200th birthday in July, Jennifer Melcher, a research associate with the Archaeology Institute at the University of West Florida, will discuss St. Michael’s Cemetery’s story map of graves during a free virtual lecture from 7 to 8 p.m.
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