How conservator Frances Henderson Ford saves historical Holy City tombstones
Frances Henderson Ford at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim’s Coming Street cemetery
Even on a fall day, it can feel like 100 degrees beneath the canopy of Catherine Lopez’s circa-1843 tomb (she died shortly after childbirth). “It has its own microclimate,” marvels conservator Frances Henderson Ford, who has spent months repairing cracks in the Gothic Revival structure, cleaning away an insidious growth known as “black crust,” and otherwise ensuring that the mausoleum—the most architecturally significant in the Coming Street Cemetery owned by Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE)—survives another century. KKBE joins Charleston’s Huguenot Church and St. Philip’s on a lengthy list of institutions that have hired Ford to tend their aging gravestones. Here, she fills us in on her rare speciality.
CM: You were a preschool teacher in your forties when you began studying preservation. Why the career change?
FF: I read that the College of Charleston was starting an undergrad program in preservation and said, “That’s what I’m going to do!” I had the time of my life during a course in cemetery restoration. I later decided to get my master of science in historic preservation, concentrating in architectural conservation, from the University of Pennsylvania. After returning to Charleston, I worked for Richard Marks Restoration while building my own business focused on stone.
CM: What’s so enticing about cemetery restoration?
FF: I love using the restoration materials—it’s almost like being a sculptor. I have to color-match the material to the stone, then manipulate it into the areas of loss, sometimes trying to copy curves or corner details of pieces that have broken off.
CM: But it isn’t just about aesthetics, right?
FF: Right. My foremost concern is safety. Historic cemeteries are full of marble, a fairly soft stone that can deteriorate badly. If someone so much as puts a hand on an unstable tablet—which can weigh 800 pounds—it can go over. When I’m repairing a stone, I find real satisfaction in knowing that I’m able to make it secure for another 100 years—if not more.
Born: Charleston, but raised in Columbia and Spartanburg, as well as New Jersey
Lives: On James Island with her husband, Frank, and Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Lottie
Works: As owner of Ford Restored and a lecturer and director of architectural conservation labs with the Clemson-College of Charleston preservation graduate program
Creative hobby: Sewing and smocking