Last year cathedral trained mason, stone carver and conservator Simeon A. Warren led a group of members of the Circular Church in a weekend project that involved cleaning their church's gravestones. The efforts were part of a greater movement to preserve the city's monuments and memorials.
The project took place in the weeks after the devastating fire at Notre Dame in Paris. Warren asked: If we don't share and preserve this knowledge now, how can we rebuild when disaster strikes?
A year later that question seems more urgent than ever. Warren and Circular Church have enlisted the help of others — fresh blood, if you will — including preservationist Wesley Painter, who moved back to Charleston last fall and offered to take part in the cemetery's preservation project.
Painter has worked in conservation restoration in New York City, doing archival work in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery, which was founded in 1838 and described as Brooklyn's first public park. His career took a turn when he worked briefly in menswear production — and then the 2016 election happened and like many millennials he questioned his real purpose in life. He restarted his career in historic preservation and now he's here in Charleston to help tell the stories of the dead.
Painter says that when he was working in NYC, he was often one of the youngest people interested in the preservation of cemeteries. He hopes to change that reality in Charleston. "Especially in a college town, we need to get younger people involved," he said.
Attending house tours during the 50th anniversary of the Greenwich Preservation Society, Painter noted that everyone around him was much older. Perhaps a morbid question, but certainly a realistic one, Painter asked: "When they die, who's in line to back them up?"
Part of the work involving younger generations is putting this preservation work online, especially on social media (you can find Painter's posts @blvcklodges on Instagram). And now, with the help of developer Will Bullock, the preservation of Circular Church's graveyard will be accessible via an app.
While the app is still in the development phases, you can get a pretty good sense of what to expect. As Painter describes it, the app will serve as "a museum in your hand." Users can simply download the app, stand over gravestones in the Circular Church, and learn about the history of the interred. Painter has ambitious visions for the app's capabilities, suggesting special ghost icons for Halloween tours of cemeteries around town.
Naturally, Painter and crew would love to see this project expand to the rest of the peninsula's 13 cemeteries and graveyards; the number of stories under each gravestone (and often, in spots where no gravestone was ever laid) is almost overwhelming. Painter estimates that Circular Church's graveyard alone is the final resting place for over 1,500 bodies.
What stories do those long dead people tell? There are the famous memorials: medical pioneer Josiah Flagg, U.S. Congressman Isaac Edward Holmes, politician Richard Hutson. There are the expected Charleston names — a slew of Lockwoods and one Henry Laurens Pinckney.
The stories of the more recent dead are just as important; Painter says that he's been in communication with Mother Emanuel, hoping to preserve the incredibly important history of the church.
"My grandfather died seven years ago and I just didn't have the questions to ask him," said Painter. A recent visit from his girlfriend's mother prompted a Q&A session, inspired by Painter's hindsight. "That sort of mentality is so important," he said.
Circular Congregational Church is a prime example of living history, offering a constant reminder of the city's trials and tribulations as it stands proudly on Meeting Street, a rainbow flag adorning its front gate.
"Right now we're hearing about death everyday," said Painter. "I was just staring at gravestones where the people died from the Spanish flu. We're going through the same thing."