Razing Cemetery Takes Hearts of Stone

By Colleen Cason, ccason@VenturaCountyStar.com
October 24, 2004

What were they thinking? Or more to the point, what were they feeling?

In the fall of 1964, Ventura's city fathers certainly weren't overcome with compassion by the story of Margaret Lynch Clark. She had saved for a year to buy a headstone for her son's grave. She sent back to Vermont for the finest granite marker, because her firstborn deserved nothing less.

Ventura's city fathers weren't wracked by shame, either. "I think this is the most disgraceful sight that any city has ever allowed to happen," R.G. Percy, of the County Historical Society, declared.

They also weren't exactly oozing civic pride. They saw to it William D. Hobson -- known as the father of Ventura County -- lay in an unmarked grave.

About this time 40 years ago, St. Mary's Cemetery Park & Ventura Cemetery Park was someplace you would not want to be caught dead.

The powers-that-were at City Hall decided to convert an abandoned pioneer cemetery -- on Main Street, a mile from the San Buenaventura Mission -- into Cemetery Memorial Park.

Opened in 1862, the graveyard was the final resting place of an estimated 2,200 to 3,000 Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Chumash and Chinese. It was closed in 1944 and fell into disrepair.

Transforming a 7-acre eyesore into a public park is not a bad thing. They just went about it very badly.

Hundreds of headstones were sledge-hammered from their bases. At first, they were stacked in a maintenance yard. Eventually, though, they supposedly were ground up to build the Olivas Park levee.

An estimated eight to 10 graves were likely paved over for a parking lot.

When this $12,000 demolition was complete, only a few dozen of the deceased had any sort of marker at all.

You'd think after four decades this issue would have died a natural death, considering the good people of Ventura have a lovely park to enjoy, but it came roaring back to life Wednesday during the Ventura Parks and Recreation Commission meeting at City Hall.

Thirty people showed up to give impassioned speeches urging the panel to use park-revitalization funds to honor those buried there.

A few more came to express regret that they had through various means taken possession of tombstones that once graced the cemetery.

One man -- who favors Ford vehicles -- affixed the GM logo on a tombstone over the deceased's name.

The cemetery fight might not have a pulse except for the man in the fedora, Steve Schleder.

An architectural restorationist, he moved to Ventura from the San Fernando Valley three years ago. When he heard the story of how the cemetery had been demolished, he didn't believe any city would dishonor its dead like that, but after research, he realized it was the truth.

A purist, Schleder wants Cemetery Park returned as much as possible to its original state.

He believes the tombstones were not ground up but actually thrown into the levee intact. It would have cost too much for the machinery to grind the marble and granite, he argues, and the city was all about pinching pennies on the project.

Schleder has talked various businesses into donating materials and labor for the restoration, he told me.

While city officials are sympathetic to the families of the dead, they argue it would cost too much to restore and then maintain the cemetery.

Schleder believes living history tours, focusing on the lives of the departed, would not only honor them but also bring in cash to keep up the place.

Still others favor keeping it as a park but erecting a monument with the names of those buried there along with a display of the original markers.

What they don't want is a tot lot, and that is one of the options park commissioners are weighing.

Even after 40 years it is not too late to fix a mistake, former Congressman Bob Lagomarsino passionately told the panel on Wednesday.

"Believe it or not, there are times when duly elected officials make mistakes. I believe it is the responsibility of today's city officials to rectify that mistake," said Lagomarsino, who has kin buried in the unmarked graves.

One speaker brought up the notion that in Latin cultures, a person has three deaths: the day he dies; the day he is buried; and the day he is forgotten.

The last is the saddest death of all.

So what were those officials feeling back then? Who can say?

I know my own heart would have to be made of stone for me to live with such a decision.

-- On the Net: For archived articles and photos of the graveyard, click on http://www.restorestmarys.org

-- Colleen Cason's columns run Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Contact her at ccason@VenturaCountyStar.com

Copyright 2004, Ventura County Star. All Rights Reserved.


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