Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Monumental Challenge

I have to say, I really walked into it this past weekend. I was out at the (formerly abandoned) B’nai Israel Cemetery in West Philly (see links at end), photographing the headstones as part of a research project, when I was invited to the takedown of the broken Keystone monument at nearby (also formerly abandoned) Mount Moriah Cemetery.  Donna, along with her husband, who both take care of B’nai Israel and as much of Mount Moriah as they can handle, had organized a rigging crew to remove the broken spire from atop the large Masonic Keystone monument. Hurricane Sandy toppled the spire a few weeks back so the only thing holding it up above the roadway was a tangle of vines.

Keystone monument with toppled spire

You can see the broken piece in this photo I took a couple weeks prior to this visit. At right is what the spire looked like a few years ago. I was invited to take pictures of the disassembly, but it was obvious they really needed another pair of hands. As I walked the short distance into Mount Moriah (B’nai Israel is essentially on the same piece of land), I saw that a scaffold had already been built around the monument. I would estimate the base of the broken spire to have been about twenty feet off the ground, the spire itself adding another six feet.

It was mid-afternoon when I got there, and nightfall when I left. Over the course of about three hours, we managed to get the 500-pound marble spire down to the ground in one piece, to await its reattachment at some point in the future. About eight people were involved in the project, though one lead guy provided most of the brainpower and muscle.

Sawing the marble spire loose from the steel rebar
The spire was actually attached to the main structure of the monument with steel rebar, a rod that went through the center of the spire, and continued down into the arch of the monument. The rebar had bent and pulled out of the spire somewhat when the spire fell, but was still attached to the inside of the spire. To get the spire down, the rebar had to be cut.

That’s where the generator and electric Sawzall® came into play. Three guys set all this up and the lead guy up on the scaffold spent twenty minutes sawing through the steel. When it finally broke loose, the spire looked quite precarious hanging up there with ropes and nylon straps. How to get it down? The old green coffin-lowering straps had no winching mechanism so another fellow provided some pulleys and rope. Hopefully things could be rigged up so we could ease the spire down to the ground.

Marble miter from atop monument
The marble miter, or flame, was actually loose on the rebar protruding from the top of the spire. This just slid off and was gently lowered to the ground in a padded moving blanket. I set the twenty-pound decoration in the nearby weeds out of harm’s way.

Spire cut loose from steel rebar
At one point, there were as many as three men on the upper deck of the scaffold, balancing the spire in mid-air, attempting to lower it down to the next level. Did I mention that it was slowly getting dark? And that one of the men had only one arm? I was holding onto the pulley rope from the ground, adding some upward force to the hanging spire, while they guided it through the center gap in the platform. Some other folks were keeping the generator running and connecting lights. My wife called my cell phone at this point wondering where I was. I told her I was helping disassemble a broken marble monument in an old cemetery at night – that’s plausible, right?

Spire being lowered thru decking
Nothing short of amazing to me was the fact that this group of guys kept their cool even when things began to look impossible. When lowering the spire all the way to the ground began to look unlikely, they ended up propping one of the 2x10 planks against the box of the pickup truck so we could gradually slide the spire into the back of the truck!

I was surprised to find out later that these guys were not a professional rigging crew, but just regular people who happened to have way more common sense and practical know-how than you could possibly imagine! And they had the right tools. Why were they here? Maybe the same reason I was there. Just to have the honor of doing something good.

Fund-raising will be put into place in the near future to reattach the spire, through the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery. This would obviously involve a crane and people skilled in statuary restoration.

Spire safely in truck bed

Further Reading:
West Philadelphia's B'nai Israel Cemetery