WYCKOFF, N.J. – For the past two-and-a-half months, Robert Neal Carpenter has been spending his days at the Wyckoff Reformed Church cemetery.
The renowned sculptor and carver – who has done work for St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and the Verizon building at the World Trade Center site – has been using his skills to restore and repair over 50 historic headstones that were knocked to the ground in October .
“These people were living at one time and they all have a story,” said Carpenter, of Yonkers, while looking around the historic cemetery, where some stones date back to the Revolutionary War.
Carpenter said “it is satisfying” to see how far the repairs have come since he started the work.
The roughly 55 headstones that were vandalized are now back up. “These stones were knocked down all over the place,” he said. “And we have rows again. It is exciting.”
The stones in the historic section of the cemetery range from field stone, used by early settlers, to red sand stone, used during the Revolutionary War, to marble, to granite, used after the Civil War, he explained.
Because “all the stones are different,” Carpenter said he had to approach each repair differently to come up with a solution.
He used special techniques and tools to fill in cracks, minimize the water that could penetrate the stones, and glue stones back together, he explained.
Carpenter said the work has been “exhausting” and “exciting.”
Mostly, he gets excited over the history he is helping to preserve. Some of the headstones belong to Revolutionary War soldiers and Bergen County settlers. The stones feature surnames that match current Bergen towns, such as Demarest and Harrington (Harrington Park).
“You’ve got magnificent history here,” he said.
Carpenter has been a sculptor and carver for about 45 years. He learned the trade after quitting his engineering job and moving to Germany. There he attended the German State Woodcarving School and the Master School For Stone Sculpture, Carving and Technique.
One of his teachers showed him masterpieces that were 400 and 500 years old, as well as “beautiful, modern things,” he said.
The teacher showed him how, “if they are really good, they gel with the old. And he pointed out some things, and I’ll never forget that,” he said.
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