Margaret Studt visited the grave of her great-uncle buried in historic Congressional Cemetery near Capitol Hill Friday and was pleasantly surprised to find she didn't need to cut back the weeds from his ornate, Victorian gravestone.
Until recently, Studt and other visitors to Washington's oldest cemetery not only had to cut the grass surrounding the graves but also had to contend with packs of wild dogs that roamed the 33-acre cemetery and the problem of vandalism of hundreds of the cemetery's unusual tombstones.
The burial ground, opened in 1807 at 1801 E St. SE, contains the remains of 66,000 people including about 80 congressmen, 10 Washington mayors, Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, Declaration of Independence signer and Vice President Elbridge Gerry and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
The owner of the cemetery, Christ Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill, found it could no longer afford to maintain the sprawling burial ground and in 1975 turned the deteriorating and extensively damaged cemetery over to a nondenominational, nonprofit organization.
Cindy Warren, executive director of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, said it has taken 12 years to stabilize the conditions at the cemetery and discourage vandalism of the gravestones.
"We can now mow the grass regularly," she said. "And we have improved security throughout the cemetery."
Warren said a superintendent now lives on the property and his presence has greatly reduced the number of incidents of damage to the cemetery stones. The association also has planted triple rows of roses and other thorny bushes to make a "green barbed wire" barricade along a low brick wall on 17th Street. The cemetery staff includes the superintendent and three groundskeepers.
"We have no idea who caused all the damage or why," she said. "We just know that we are doing something right because vandalism is not much of a problem now."
To raise operating money, the association holds two fund-raisers each year at the cemetery, one a Halloween party that draws families from the neighborhood, and the other a Victorian costume party sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
In the last year they have begun again to sell plots, ranging from $450 to $650, as well as tombstones and inscriptions. Leonard Matlovich, who in 1975 was discharged from the Air Force after being the first active-duty military man to declare his homosexuality, bought a plot this year and has already erected his tombstone. The inscription across the top reads: "A Gay Vietnam Vet."
The association also raises money by selling firewood, flowering bushes and T-shirts for $6 that say, "I Dig Congressional Cemetery."
But a large part of their yearly income, about $80,000 in 1986, comes from memberships, according to the association's newsletter.
The organization has 500 dues-paying members who contribute from $25 to $500 each. Last year the cemetery's costs exceeded its income by about $1,000, the newsletter said.
The financially strapped cemetery, known originally as Washington Parish Burial Ground, was renamed Congressional Cemetery in 1846.
After the establishment of Arlington National Cemetery in 1864, fewer members of Congress or high-ranking military officers were interred there.
The federal government occasionally appropriated money to help maintain what was called the country's "national cemetery." However, from 1950 until 1982, Congress refused to budget any money for the cemetery.
Five years ago, Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La.) managed to get a $300,000 grant for capital improvements passed and some of that money has been used for cemetery security.
Warren said the association hopes to encourage residents and tourists to think of the cemetery as an inviting park for all to use.
"We encourage people to come here to picnic, to jog or just relax," she said. "We are not as formal and sterile as Arlington. We want people to come here to enjoy themselves."