Will cemetery be park?

This story ran in the main edition (full run) of the Daily News
Sunday, February 06, 2005

Will cemetery be park?

Graveyard poll will help city decide future

By Carol Rock, Staff Writer
Sunday, February 06, 2005
- Beneath the soil on a plot of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean lie the remains of some 3,000 people -- among them Civil War era heroes, paupers, American Indians and a congressman -- many of their grave sites lost to a city park.

Cemetery Memorial Park on Ventura's Main Street dates back to 1862 and sits in an area a mile from Mission San Buenaventura, land rich in history, land where city officials are asking residents to help decide if a children's playground should be built, or perhaps a picnic area.

Steve Schleder, an architectural restoration expert by trade and preservationist by passion, is livid. His heart and soul have become entwined with the people buried there and he is battling to save the cemetery.

"I was horrified when I learned about the park," Schleder said. "I couldn't live in a town where such a desecrated cemetery existed."

Established as a Catholic burial ground in 1862, the 3.69-acre parcel, on a hill overlooking the ocean, was doubled in size eight years later to add room for Protestant burials. The Catholic portion was blessed as St. Mary's in 1884. In 1889, the city, then known as San Buenaventura, assumed control of the non-Catholic portion, which included sections for Hebrews and Chinese.

Then, a century after the cemetery was established, the city bought the Catholic section from the Los Angeles Archdiocese with the intent of turning the land, which had not had a burial since 1944, into a public park.

Crypts, monuments and headstones were toppled and taken to a city yard; some were dumped in Hall Canyon, some were stolen for pranks and some ended up in a levee.

About 40 years ago, a recreation center and parking lot were built, covering grave sites. The recreation center was later demolished after its foundation cracked. Now the city is preparing to survey its residents to see what they want on a section of the land where an old grid map shows seven people are buried.

Schleder has gathered support from veterans groups, historical organizations, Indians and others and now, with support for recognition of the old cemetery growing, the Ventura city staff is beginning to take notice.

"My gut feeling is that we might end up with a very nice memorial-type park that honors those interred there," said Ventura city parks director Jerry Revard. "There's talk of putting up a commemorative wall and historical interpretive information."

At present, the park is restricted to passive use.

"Out of respect for what it is, we don't book the space for parties or soccer games. This is a place to reflect quietly," Revard said.

Revard, charged with researching burials on the property, said an examination of a grid of the property indicates seven grave sites stand where the city has constructed park facilities.

"If we were to mark them, four are definitely under the parking lot and two might be in the rec center area," he said.

Standing on that land, it's hard to miss the marker for Santos Saucedo (1873-1921) at the edge. Several feet closer to Main Street are two more markers.

Julie Tumamait, the tribal chairwoman of the Barbareno/Ventureno band of Mission Indians, has an uncle who died in infancy, known to the family only as "Leo." His remains, she said, are beneath the paved parking lot.

Pvt. James Sumner of Company G in the 1st U.S. Cavalry, who battled Indian warrior Cochise in defense of a settler's child in Arizona, is buried there. Sumner was given the Medal of Honor in 1869 for gallantry in action. His grave, marked with a brass plate placed recently by the American Legion, is one of fewer than 100 markers still in the park.

Maj. Gen. William Vandever, who fought for the Union in the Civil War, also is buried there. Vandever went on to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs and serve two terms in Congress, where he played a key role in establishing Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.

Much of this information was collected by Schleder, who's been a familiar face at Ventura City Hall, looking up records, asking for anecdotal information, phone numbers, photographs ... anything to solve the mystery of the city's actions 40 years earlier.

It's simple to him: Cemetery Memorial Park is a cemetery, a historic site that was damaged but is still worthy of rehabilitation -- and respect.

Kevin Flanagan, a spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, which regulates cemeteries in the state, said Ventura broke no laws in converting the cemetery in 1965. But National Cemetery Director Bill Livingston said that the city's demolition and disposal of grave markers is nothing short of destruction of government property.

"This is just awful," he said, "to treat veterans with such disrespect. Those markers belong to the government."

Livingston offered to help Schleder replace the monuments that could be documented; Schleder's records, compiled by Santa Barbara archaeologist E. T. Strobrobridge, reveal one Confederate and 45 Union soldiers buried within the park grounds.

Archaeology consultant Bob Lopez of Ventura said that regulations protecting burial sites weren't passed at the state level until 1972, when the California Environmental Quality Act went into effect.

"If the city wants to do any building or grading now, it would require an environmental impact report. If they find six burials, then that constitutes a cemetery and slaps a 200-year moratorium on any development," he said. "It's become a moral question, really."

Meanwhile, the city is going ahead with a survey to see what residents want at the park, said Mike Montoya, Ventura's parks manager. The poll will go out this month with results due in June.

"We're not trying to ramrod a project, we're simply thinking about some possibilities for the property, especially since we have so little park space near the downtown area," he said.

"We are all in favor of memorializing the existing cemetery."

Carol Rock, (661) 257-5252 carol.rock@dailynews.com

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