Digging Up the Past for Future Development

Digging Up the Past for Future Development

From his office on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, W. Kevin Pape supervises some 75 historic-preservation/archeological-excavation projects at any one time all over the country.

Those projects, and the 48 full-time employees involved with them, might be as close as a couple blocks away, in Washington Park, where his firm has dug for remnants of an old cemetery (and its occupants) as part of an underground-garage construction project. Or they could be as afar as the Alaskan wilderness, where he’s in partnership with similar businesses to look for evidence of prehistoric/historic human habitation along the up-to-1,000-mile route of a proposed natural-gas pipeline.

These are aspects of the “cultural resource management” business, which Gray & Pape Inc. has been involved with since 1987. (Pape’s founding partner, Marcy Gray, retired in 2003.) The firm blends several challenging disciplines: archaeology, architecture, history, and science, making it in demand when projects spring up throughout North America.

“It’s the application of architectural history to the regulatory and construction environment,” Pape explains. “There are (federal) regulations that require construction projects to consider their effect on historic resources. For any given project, we will be asked to go out and determine if there are archeological sites, historic buildings, or cultural landscapes affected by the project. We’ll assess their significance and help clients to mitigate their impact.”

Digging in the Dirt

One example is the redevelopment of Washington Park. 3CDC, working with the Cincinnati Park Board, is doing a $47.3 million renovation of the Park, including an underground garage for visitors to nearby Music Hall. The historic park dates to 1855. It’s old, but what was underneath it is even older: Remnants of the Episcopal Cemetery and its “individuals” – as Pape delicately refers to the human remains. Pape’s firm was contracted to excavate the area in the way of the new construction’s footprint.

According to old maps on file at downtown’s Christ Church, this cemetery – one of two located on what is now Washington Park – may have once had as many as 2,200 graves. Those buried were supposed to have been disinterred and reburied elsewhere back when the cemetery ceased operation. But not everybody made the move.

What Pape has found has been mysterious. While his workers have counted remnants of 91 remaining graves, there appear to be more “individuals” than that. That matters for proper reburial – as well as for historical records. Some of the discrepancy can be accounted for because, in the rubble of old mausoleums, some sets of bones had been bundled and maybe stacked – a common practice in European ossuaries at the time.

“But there were other sets of remains commingled with the rubble,” Pape says. “So until we complete an analysis, we won’t know exactly how many individuals there are.” Elizabeth Murray, a forensics anthropologist and biology professor at College of Mt. St. Joseph, is doing an analysis.

But Pape has his ideas on why the dig appears to have found more bodies than graves. “If you recognize the Episcopal Cemetery was active between 1817 and 1855, during that period Cincinnati suffered cholera epidemics, particularly the severe epidemic of 1849. I have to suspect for that reason alone the cemetery became overcrowded. What happened with the epidemic is you’d get a lot of people who’d die at the same time, even within families, so you’d tend to get multiple burials.”

Pape also has explanations as to why any graves are still there at all. “Some of the records indicate some families may have taken money in lieu of removing remains,” he says. “In other instances, it’s pretty clear families moved on and couldn’t be located, so you would expect their remains to still be there. Also, at that time there was a sense that victims of the cholera epidemic might not be disinterred because infection could still be live – people were not sure about that.” (That is not the case, Pape says.)

The Last Frontier

Pape also monitors the aforementioned Alaska job. It will take five years for his phase to be done. While he travels there for occasional management meetings, he doesn’t go into the field to do actual survey work. He’s not allowed to do that unless he gets proper training, since the pipeline will travel through some rugged territory, even Arctic terrain.

“Everyone on our teams goes through at least a week’s worth of wilderness-survival training,” Pape says. “And they have bear guards who accompany the survey team. Sometimes they have to use helicopters to get into locations, and then live in tents erected to support their effort.” The sometimes dangerous work has significant repercussions on not only current matters, but even pre-history.

“People may not realize it, but Alaska represents one of the major gateways of human occupation into North America – the former land bridge,” Pape explains. “People who live there now, the Inuit, and the buildings they occupy, may look relatively modern because of the materials used for houses today. But those people have lived in that spot for maybe 6,000 years. So there is huge ‘time depth’ in those communities.”

The firm also gets involved in unusual writing projects. Patrick O’Bannon, senior manager – history architecture, recently won a top award from the National Council on Public History for his study of the use of temporary cofferdams by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (Cofferdams create a “dry space” in a river, so that support foundations can be placed in the bed for locks, dams and bridges.)

“No one’s previously documented this because they’re temporary – you tear them out when you’re done and they disappear,” O’Bannon says. “So this key piece of technology, which allows you to actually build those things you see in the water here and now, never attracted that much attention.”


Making OTR Home

Because projects are spread far and wide, Gray & Pape has four regional offices – in Richmond, Va.; Providence, R.I.; Rabbit Hash, Ky.; and Bloomington, Ind. Payroll can jump to over 100 when workers in the field are needed for projects. Pape’s wife, Kimberly Starbuck, is the company’s principal photographer.

But despite the other offices, Over-the-Rhine is the perfect location for a main base of operations. Pape & Gray’s home at 1318 Main is in an Italianate building that dates to 1843. Not only is the 19th Century neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places – it has the most Italianate buildings of any entry on the Register – but it has a past that resonates with Pape, a Cincinnati native.

His great-grandfather established a business there in 1850 – Pape Brothers Molding Co. After receiving an anthropology degree from University of Cincinnati and getting his career established, Pape found his current location when it was recommended by an owner, Wes Cowan – now a History Detectives celebrity as well as auctioneer – he was then archeology curator of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History.

The building needed a lot of work. Pape remembers looking through the third-story’s floor and seeing the first floor. And because zoning at the time didn’t allow upper stories to be used for offices, he had to get Cowan – who also co-owned a rear but unconnected building – to convert a shared cistern into a below-level passageway so he could expand. (Zoning has been changed; his firm now uses all three floors of its original building, which he bought outright in 2004.) And the building looks spectacular, with its restoration completed. Wall partitions salvaged from the interior of the old Rubel Baking Co. (home of Rubel’s rye) separate offices. Pape’s second-floor one still has the fireplace from when it served as an apartment. At the main entrance, behind a reception desk, artifacts from excavations line shelving – old bottles, broken plates, some stones, what appears to be a tile mezuzah. Perfect accessories for a company preoccupied with how we lived in the past.

“I chose Over-the-Rhine because it was the right thing to do,” Pape explains. “I fervently believe historic preservation and economic development go hand in hand, and revitalizing our historic communities is important to the quality of life in our city. This is putting into action some of things we believe in.”

Cowan echoes Pape’s committment: “I’ve know Kevin for more than 25 years. Kevin’s commitment to historic preservation and to Over-the-Rhine has been unwavering. As his company grew it would have been easy to take his business to the suburbs. That’s not Kevin, though. He’s still there, and I can’t imagine him ever leaving!”

Yet Gray & Pape is concerned with the future – the future of the past, that is. As an example, O’Bannon recently finished an assignment from the Ohio Historic Preservation Office to help evaluate Mid-Century Modernist architecture for historic value. When the federal law was passed in 1966, it established the age of a building as one important criterion for historic status. Generally, it had to be at least 50 years old.

“As we move forward from 1966, we now have buildings from 1961 that qualify,” O’Bannon says. “Well, a lot of buildings were built in this country between 1945 and 1961, and state preservation offices all over the country are grappling with how to figure out what’s significant, what’s not, and how to deal with this.

“What do you do with all the strip malls, ranch houses, Modernist commercial buildings? History not there yet. We’re trying to establish guidelines for what to look at.”

At Gray & Pape, the past constantly is colliding with the present. And it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Photography by Scott Beseler.
Kevin Pape; Digging at Washington Park

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