ESTELL MANOR — Atlantic County is moving forward with a major expansion project at its Veterans Cemetery that will allow for 4,425 new graves and one of the first veterans museums in South Jersey.
The cemetery, which opened in 1986, is at about 70 percent of its 5,800-grave capacity. Increasing demand for space, particularly as the World War II generation passes, has necessitated the expansion.
“When it was built, there was a limit on the capacity, and we’re getting to that point,” said Bill Reinert, head of the county’s public works department. “It’s time to expand.”
By the end of this year, Reinert said, the cemetery will add an acre of land, permitting about 885 new graves. The goal is to add five acres by 2015, which could allow the county to meet the demands of veterans and their spouses for another 20 years.
Meanwhile, the county is planning to renovate the historic Estell Mansion into a veterans museum, which is expected to be completed in 2015.
The cemetery is hallowed ground for veterans and their families, as well as for Richard “Dick” Squires, who led the effort to establish the facility in the 1980s.
“I walk through it once every four or five weeks,” said Squires, 80, of Egg Harbor Township. “It’s like a class reunion of people I’ve known in my lifetime.”
The former county executive and Korean War veteran said there were few burial sites exclusively for veterans when the cemetery was established. It became part of the larger Estell Manor Park, which was the site of a glassworks in the 1800s and a munitions plant during World War I. The remote tract was the perfect place for a veterans cemetery because it was peaceful, with a picturesque river nearby, Squires said.
“It’s a solemn location I considered perfect for a burial place,” he said. “It was one of the first projects I aimed for when I entered office (in 1984).”
In 1993, the county purchased the Estell Mansion, which sits off Route 50 near the cemetery. The Greek Revival-style building was built in 1832 by the wealthy Estell family. It was home to Rebecca Estell Bourgeois Winston, the first mayor of Estell Manor and New Jersey’s first female mayor.
Squires said he had planned to renovate the old home into a place for indoor funerals, but the money was never there.
Now, the building will be used to memorialize veterans in a different way. A commission, chaired by Squires, is working out how to collect, store and eventually showcase artifacts from local veterans.
Reinert said the building is perfect for a museum.
“The outside looks very nice, just a big old house surrounded by open fields and woods, but when you walk inside, it’s very extensive,” he said. “You see the size and the possibilities.”
Preliminary plans would place the majority of the museum on the first floor, with classrooms for educational programs on the second and storage on the third. County officials have discussed relocating the cemetery’s administrative offices to the building.
Although the county installed a new roof and HVAC system when it took over the Estell Mansion, Reinert said, it has sat empty for years. The building is structurally sound, but it will require about two years of substantial work to restore it, he said.
That work will include repairing ceilings and making sure the museum is handicapped accessible, with an elevator and entrance ramps. Preliminary estimates put the cost at $1 million, he said.
Reinert said the larger project will include a widening of Purple Heart Drive, the road leading from the park entrance to the cemetery, to two lanes. A path connecting the museum and cemetery may be built to keep bikes and pedestrians off the main road.
A request for bids for the cemetery expansion and infrastructure upgrades, as well as new stormwater facilities, will go out this summer, he said. The total cost for those projects is not yet available.
County Executive Dennis Levinson, who appointed Squires to chair the commission in March, said much of the museum work will be done through donations of materials and time. For instance, an architect has volunteered to draft renovation plans.
The county may be able to use its Open Space fund to pay for improvements, because the park is being preserved in its current state, he said.
“I don’t see funding as a roadblock here,” he said. “In fact, we haven’t even asked for donations yet, and we have different groups (who’ve said) they would like to be part of this.”
Levinson said the goal of the museum is to preserve the legacy of area veterans for future generations.
“When people get to the park, they’re amazed at what we have there,” he said. “What a wonderful day it would be for schoolchildren to picnic out there and go through the museum.”
There’s a wealth of photographs and mementos collecting dust in attics and basements that the museum would like to bring to light, he said. And, at some point, the grounds may be able to accommodate larger armaments.
The museum committee is still working out procedures for donations, but it is taking names of potential donors, said Cindy Mason Purdie, administrator for the Atlantic County Office of Cultural and Heritage Affairs. It’s also looking for storage space for donated items until the mansion can be renovated.
“You don’t want to accept donations and stick them in a garage,” she said.
Squires, who served in the Navy from 1951 through 1955, including a stint on the battleship USS Wisconsin, said he hopes the museum will help preserve a piece of U.S. history before it’s lost.
“I hope (visitors) will take away from it a solemn desire of those who served — that they will not be forgotten,” he said.
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