Rewriting the Past: Comet Lodge Cemetery Project
By Heather MacIntosh

In the late 1990s, the Comet Lodge Cemetery located at Graham Street and 23rd Street in the Beacon Hill neighborhood suffered substantial demolition after years of neglect. The graveyard, initially serving Georgetown when it was first created in the 1890s, is the final resting place for a number of early residents, some of whom were influential in the development of the city. After the 1930s, the site no longer saw new burials, and became overgrown with brambles. The cemetery's sorry state attracted the homeless, and nare-do-wells bent on vandalism. The result was a dangerous, hidden green space at the edge of the neighborhood, with open graves, broken headstones, and a mysterious past.

Site conditions made the cemetery's importance very hard to see.

After a few failed attempts at restoration, the site is now well on its way to receiving the respect it deserves. The Washington State Cemetery Association partnered with Cleveland High School to make the most of a governmentally supported clean up effort to restore the cemetery and create a park-like setting for the neighborhood to enjoy. As a part of a project funded by the King County Cultural Development Authority, an honors English class got to understand the history of the place, and in so doing, found valuable connections between the experiences of the neighborhood's first immigrant residents, and their own lives.

A Controversial Site

Learning and writing about the site's history, both the story of its life as a cemetery, and the story of its demise and the controversy surrounding its restoration, provided a number of valuable lessons. For many students, the site's recent history provided an introduction to the politics of community action, and to some degree, preservation practice.

In 1987, Beacon Hill resident Don Kipper got designs on the property, and proceeded to clear the site. His first community engagement suggested good intentions to restore the place. When Kipper began bulldozing the property, and the graves of the 200 or so individuals buried there, his real plans became vividly clear. Kipper was quirkier than anyone realized. What initially looked like restoration activity was really part of Kipper's life long dream to live on a cemetery. He intended to build his house there.

In addition to being a significant violation of conventional decency, Kipper was in abeyance of the law. Paul Elvig, with Elysian Fields Cemetery, placed a restraining order on Kipper, claiming he was trespassing. The property's ownership would be debated for another decade.

Ten years later, John Dickinson took Comet Lodge Cemetery under his wing. Though full of good intentions, Dickinson's efforts would not pan out. He received permission from King County to begin work on the project, claiming that because two deceased relatives were buried there he had the right to maintain the property. He then claimed that he owned the property, and began cutting down a number of trees, one of which fell and injured a worker. The County slapped Dickinson with a cease and desist order, and withdrew his work permit. In spite of this, Dickinson continued his fight to "save" the cemetery by telling neighbors there houses stood on babies' graves.

The County eventually took Dickinson to court, and barred him from the cemetery for good.

Community awareness of the site was, by then, quite high. King County, now invested in the site's stewardship, encouraged community action. Ron Sims allocated $100,000 toward the cemetery's rehabilitation, and with that funding, the County hired specialists Andrea McDonald and Dave Preugschat to come up with an appropriate plan for the arrangement and reinstatement of the historic burial ground.

As a part of this publicly funded effort, the South Beacon Hill Neighborhood Association and other members of the public engaged in charrettes exploring design solutions for the site.

Educational Experience

Like other educational projects involving local history, Cleveland High School's investigation of Comet Lodge's story involved learning many things at once. Besides getting to know the local politics of the site as described above, students honed their communication skills as a part of interview training conducted by Jack Straw Productions. Jack Straw has been around since the 1960s, and was created to facilitate better community engagement and critical thinking through audio media. Over the last several years, the organization has partnered with a number of schools and community groups on history-oriented projects.

Andrea McDonald, initially contracted by King County to clean up Comet Lodge, led the partnership effort and submitted the grant application to the county. She edited the final product, which is now one of the more significant research documents related to the site.

Cleveland High School English teacher Faith Beatty incorporated the project into her coursework. She and Mary White, a history teacher at Cleveland, worked together on a curriculum that fit into both the Language Arts and history programs and was consistent with the school's learning requirements.

Students were responsible for developing materials for interviews, for transcribing and editing the interviews, and preparing these for print. Students also tackled explaining the cemetery's history briefly, including the controversial recent past. Research helped students plan what questions to ask during the interviews, which they recorded with professional taping equipment provided by Jack Straw.

An outcome not outlined in the project description, many students found personal connections to the lives of immigrants buried at Comet Lodge. Themselves first generation immigrants, the project helped demonstrate the evolving, but continuously diverse character of Beacon Hill and adjacent South Seattle neighborhoods.

The effort continues a Cleveland High School tradition. In 1949, Cleveland conducted a series of oral history interviews, which were compiled into a book entitled Duwamish Diaries. Project partners hope that this most recent project will help spur another edition.

In addition, the community hopes a Learning Center will be developed on site that may incorporate some of the research involved in this project.

The project, regardless of its specific products, has invigorated with site with positive community action, discovery, and a clear plan for the future. It provides yet another example of how our historic environment can be used as a tool to improve neighborhood investment while contributing to our understanding of the city and its colorful past.

View last month's Young Voices article

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