PHILADELPHIA - It must have been a curious sight to Philadelphians walking past Fifth and Arch streets the other night. Through the open gate of the nearly 300-year-old burial ground, closed to the public since the Carter administration because of severe deterioration, suddenly there was life.
Dozens of people were standing around in freezing temperatures sipping white wine and nibbling on shrimp, sushi and strawberries, mingling with re-enactors dressed as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Frances Hopkinson as a violinist dressed in Colonial garb serenaded them.
A party in a cemetery. But no ordinary cemetery.
Beneath these worn tombstones at the Christ Church Burial Ground, a two-acre site near Independence Hall that is enclosed by 1772-era red brick walls, are scores of the nation's founders, war heroes, medical pioneers, merchants and statesmen, including Benjamin Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Today, after a $500,000 restoration led by the Christ Church Preservation Trust, the cemetery opens to the public for the first time in 27 years.
"This is a momentous occasion," Donald U. Smith, the trust's executive director, told the group, mostly descendents of people interred here, among them Benjamin Rush, known as "the father of American psychiatry" and famous for battling the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, and Philip Syng Physick, called the "father of American surgery."
"There's an entire generation that has not seen this burial ground," Smith said.
The cemetery was established in 1719, 13 years before George Washington was born, when the graveyard at Christ Church at Second and Market streets ran out of space.
An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people are buried here, most during the 18th and 19th centuries. During that time, about 1,400 known grave markers were erected on the site, and an estimated 2,000 more were lost.
In addition to Declaration signers Franklin, Joseph Hewes, Hopkinson, George Ross and Rush, other dignitaries buried here include John Dunlap, who printed the Declaration and the Constitution, Commodore William Bainbridge, who commanded the USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides," during the War of 1812 and later served as commander of the Navy. Dr. Thomas Bond, founder of America's first hospital, and 10 mayors of Philadelphia were laid to rest here.
But historians stress that the cemetery is also home to ordinary people, women who died in childbirth, stillborn infants, even the gravedigger who buried countless others who came before him, including Franklin.
Centuries of harsh weather and, more recently, acid rain and vandalism, took their toll on the graveyard. Fortunately, a church member in 1864 decided to record every inscription - preserving for posterity the names and locations subsequently lost from grave markers as they wore down or broke.
But the small church could not afford to maintain the markers and feared further damage if people walked around the graves. It closed the burial ground after the bicentennial celebration in 1976, except for special events and occasional National Park Service tours.
The cemetery was never forgotten by the public, however. People continued to peer through wrought-iron bars on Arch Street and throw pennies on Franklin's tomb, a practice borrowed from a late 19th- century tradition among brides seeking good luck - and reportedly inspired by Franklin's saying that "A penny saved is a penny earned."
About two years ago, the preservation trust decided to clean up and restore the site. Preservation specialist Jean K. Wolf and John Carr of the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust reconstructed 170 original markers, a number of which had collapsed and broken into pieces, some found yards apart. Ivy and other plants had covered many of the stones.
"It was completely overgrown," Smith said. "They called it a huge jigsaw puzzle."
New markers are being made to help identify the timeworn stones, some of which look like smooth or jagged rocks simply stuck in the ground. There are also underground tombs with about 15 coffins.
Among the descendents on hand Wednesday to celebrate the reopening were sisters Deborah and Catherine Rush. A close friend of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, their ancestor Benjamin Rush was the catalyst who brought the estranged friends back into friendly contact in their old age.
Del Conner, a Philadelphia artist who makes cast-iron firebacks, is a descendant of two notable people buried at the site: Philip Syng Physick, who initiated new surgical treatments and was a physician at the yellow fever hospital during the epidemics of 1793 and 1798, and Philip Syng Jr., a Philadelphia silversmith who made the ink and quill stand used for the signing of the Declaration.
Perched at one end of Physick's tomb, Conner, 52, recalled sitting in the same spot as a second-grader on a class trip to the cemetery. Coincidentally, he said, he had picked that place to plunk down and eat his lunch, declaring to classmates, "my great-great-great-grandfather is buried around here somewhere."
"I turned around," he said, pointing at the inscription on the other end of the tomb, "and there it was." The kids could hardly believe it.
The restoration of the cemetery represents the belief that "this is hallowed ground," said the Rev. Tim Safford, rector of the church, which was attended by John Adams, Betsy Ross and George Washington.
Such burial grounds not only help visitors understand history through both famous and ordinary people, but they bring hope, he said.
"They give you hope that you can endure, that you can make it through wars and epidemics," he said. He called the cemetery "an active burial site," with potential space for about 60 more graves.
The trust hopes for 200,000 visitors a year, beginning today with the official unlocking of the burial ground gate, historic re-enactments and tours.