Welcome to the Brooklyn classroom of 14 aspiring masonry workers: A 19th century mausoleum inside the serene expanse of Green-Wood Cemetery.
The Bridge to Crafts Careers program offers its students a unique hands-on experience across a 10-week program where the participants receive training in masonry restoration and preservation at the 1850s-era gravesite of New York banker Isaac Newton Phelps.
“I’m learning so much, and I never thought I’d see myself in a field like masonry,” said student Xavian Isaac, 21, of Queens. “But it’s honestly really eye-opening to see that I can do this type of work and that there is a place for me in this field.”
The youthful crew arrived on March 21, donning their hardhats and vests, with training to wrap up on May 27 in the program’s fifth year.
Matthew Padilla, 19, of Queens, said an uncle who works as a gravedigger in the 478-acre cemetery suggested that he join up — and now he’s hoping to stick around.
“I feel like it’d just be really cool to be able to work here,” he said of the historic 184-year-old burial ground. “It’s a beautiful place to be at. It’s not like a regular city job, [where] all you’re going to be hearing is cars.”
Class instructor Neela Wickremesinghe, Green-Wood’s director of restoration and preservation, said the cemetery partnered with Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, the World Monuments Fund and the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1 on the program where participants scale a three-tier scaffold constructed around the site.
Once their time on the job is done, each student will receive the Occupational Safety and Health Administration certification necessary to land an entry-level job in masonry restoration.
In an added bonus, the students are paid while they train. Previous participants landed positions with the National Park Service and participated in archeological digs, she said.
“It’s really about getting new and different faces into the trade,” explained Wickremesinghe. “We really work to recruit from Brooklyn, from Queens, to get folks from the Green-Wood community in here.”
A stroll through the sprawling cemetery is like a trip through city history. Its permanent residents, as the cemetery refers to those buried there, include artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, legendarily corrupt politician William “Boss” Tweed and renowned conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein.
The students are instead focused on the present atop the slight slope where Phelps lies in eternal rest. Gena Peerman, 24, of Queens, recounted how their refurbishing includes using a clay and lime mixture on the mausoleum rather than concrete, which tends to expand and could damage the vintage site.
“There’s a little bit more fine-tuning work,” explained Peerman. “It’s a little bit more about being careful to preserve the stone, preserve everything that’s on the inside and being able to fill those gaps up. We don’t want to be chipping at the marble. … It’s been here for a really long time.”
The workspace is designed to recreate a typical street construction site, and the participants are trained to work on swing and supportive scaffolding. Instruction includes learning to properly clean, repair and repoint the building stone.
“It was honestly an amazing opportunity right from the get-go,” said Isaac. “It’s honestly only opened doors for me, and allowed me to make connections with the people here and people at the union.”