NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - With the recent extension of the streetcar in Mid-City, many say the intersection of Canal Street and City Park Avenue is a lot safer for pedestrians. It now stretches across the busy interchange, right in front of Odd Fellow's Rest.
"The timing was just right for us to do this work," Michael Duplantier said.
The streets weren't the only thing that needed safety improvements. For years, some have considered the historic cemetery a public safety hazard. Teddy Pierre pointed out areas where intrusion by tree parts separated the walls of the cemetery.
"The walls are 170-years-old, and clearly there were certain sections of it which were in worse condition than other sections, and we knew we had to address it," explained Duplantier who's now a local Odd Fellow's Rest caretaker.
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows, an international fraternal organization, built the smaller, private resting place in the mid 1800s, and it was about five years ago when the FOX 8 Defenders exposed concerns over its deteriorating walls.
In 2013, Angie Green, then executive director of the local non-profit Save Our Cemeteries explained, "there are fully grown trees growing out the top of the tombs, and they're threatening to collapse onto City Park Avenue, and I worry about people walking on the sidewalk there."
Back then, she explained that the integrity of the cemetery's walls was in jeopardy, but it wasn't just the walls in trouble. On the inside, they support dozens of vaults. While individual families are responsible for the tombs, the Odd Fellows Grand Lodge of Louisiana is liable for overall maintenance. The problem then and now - there aren't many Louisiana Odd Fellows left, at least not in this part of the state.
In our original 2013 report, we were there for a meeting with the Odd Fellows global organization and Save Our Cemeteries.
"Our motto is bury the dead, educate the orphans and take care of the widowed," said Jon Petersen, then a former president of the global organization. He stressed then that he felt the crumbling state of the cemetery did not represent all the good they do around the world.
"About the last time we talked, the Odd Fellows made a decision to have much better day-to-day care and maintenance of the cemetery and began shortly after that report," Duplantier said.
The former Save Our Cemeteries Board member now oversees much of that work since the Odd Fellows made him a local caretaker. Little by little, the cemetery has gotten much-needed TLC with the walls being the most visible.
"You can imagine what the roots look like. The root systems were going down and penetrating and wreaking havoc inside the walls," Pierre said.
Pierre is in charge of reconstructing the worst sections of wall, a delicate job because in some cases, 170-year-old remains exist in wall vaults on the other side.
"That's what the job required...was to take all of the bricks down, excavate and pour a concrete foundation, and then come up from there with a concrete block," Pierre said. He showed us bricks that were removed from the walls. "These bricks are far superior to the bricks that were produced on this side of the lake, basically because the clay," Pierre said. He explained they're made of North Shore clay, a high quality brick they hope to sell to defray some of the restoration costs.
"I play a lot of puzzle games where I'm staring at a whole lot of broken fragments, trying to figure out how they match together," Emily Ford, a tomb and monument restoration expert said. Inside the walls, Ford first focused on closing the exposed wall vaults, protecting the remains.
"It was sort of like a debris field over here," she said. Her priority now is ensuring those remains have names because many of them are considered orphaned, meaning no surviving family members care for them.
"We started locating all these fragments, put them in order, documented where the tablets were, put fragments together reconstructed those. Michael (Duplantier) consulted the records to figure out which vault they went to so then we got to send folks home, which is really great," Ford said.
All the work is part of a long term restoration project from the inside out finally resurrecting the renowned neighborhood of cemeteries. "It was a combination of having the funds available to do it.. having the logistical circumstances that finally enabled us to get the work done," Duplantier said.
The structural work on the walls is complete. Crews should wrap up plastering and painting the walls by late Spring.
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