Damage to the arched entrance into Highland Cemetery has some City Council members debating construction of a new main entrance.
And, council members don’t want anything done to the stone archway until city staff consults historic preservation experts.
City officials said the arched entrance on Fort Sill Boulevard, at Smith Avenue, was built as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in 1936-37, although the cemetery itself dates back to Lawton’s earliest days. The top of that stone arched entrance was damaged about two years ago when it was struck by a City of Lawton trash truck trying to exit the cemetery, and Parks and Grounds Superintendent Keith Neitzke said the truck’s impact moved the lentel (the load-bearing iron bar placed over the archway to support the stones) more than 5 inches off the north column . The entrance has been blocked since the accident, city officials said.
Neitzke said there appears to be significant damage to the lentel, but the extent of that damage can’t be known until the stone is removed and the columns and lentel fully examined.
“We’re not sure,” he said, explaining while rocks were knocked way from the bottom of the archway on its north side and fractures seem to be evident in the stones on the columns, the biggest problem is damage to the lentel.
City staff members outlined three options for repairs:
• Remove the archway, disassembling the stones from the columns.
• Remove the existing archway, then increase its height by 2 feet to create a 14-foot-tall entrance, then rebuild the archway using stones matched as closely as possible to the originals. Given the level of expertise needed, the cost of this option ranges up to $75,000, according to stone masons who were consulted, said Neitzke.
• Repair the archway to restore its original look, then designate it as a ceremonial entrance used only by funeral processions entering the cemetery, which is the recommendation of city staff. The cemetery’s main entrance would become the south entrance, which runs parallel to Lincoln Boulevard along the cemetery’s southern boundary. Neitzke said city staff has a preliminary estimate of $22,000 for those repairs.
While council members conceded the third option was the best one, several also wanted the south entrance to be upgraded beyond the simple access road now in place.
Ward 5 Councilman Allan Hampton, who is spearheading an effort to identify all the city parks that contain WPA structures, noted the historic significance of the stone archway. Hampton said that to retain the integrity of the structure, the city should consult with historic preservation experts, adding that restoration of another WPA project (the stone wall of Ron Stephens Stadium) faced the same problem of retaining historic integrity.
“There is a cost to that,” he said, of the work.
Neitzke said part of the city’s problem with the cemetery project — which city staff wants to do as soon as possible — is knowing exactly what the damage is.
“We’re dealing with a lot of unknowns,” he said.
Deputy City Manager Richard Rogalski said the work must be done by a stone mason because accurate restoration will require “a unique skill.” He said thoroughly investigating the archway for damage will mean removing stones to analyze the lentel and the columns “to see what the damage is,” then putting the top stones back in place.
“For historic preservation, touching it as little as possible is the best route,” Rogalski said.
City Manager Michael Cleghorn said disassembling the stone structure is a process in itself, time consuming work that means carefully documenting placement and numbering stones so they can be put back in their exact positions. Neitzke said the stone must be removed, noting “until we lift the stone off, we won’t know what we’re looking at.”
Hampton said the city is obligated to repair the damage.
“We can’t leave it the way it is. Something’s going to fall,” he said, adding the cemetery may not be the city’s only concern (the stone archway in Harmon Park, also built by the WPA, is beginning to deteriorate).
Ward 3 Councilwoman Linda Chapman, noting she spends a significant amount of time visiting Highland Cemetery, said the city must upgrade the entrances.
“The south entrance is nothing,” she said, explaining there is no directions provided at the south entrance to help locate the rest of the cemetery and it lacks a traffic signal light to help residents leave the site. “I want it (the south entrance) to look nice and I want the arch back.”
Council members directed city staff to meet with historic preservation experts and explore repair options before bringing back a recommendation in July.