- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - When Michelle Duhon started her historic conservation company in 2011, she had no idea that it would be selected to restore a piece of New Orleans history - the 133-year-old tomb of voodoo queen Marie Laveau.

The high-profile job for Bayou Preservation has led to greater opportunities for the business in a city with countless deteriorating burial sites.

A Dallas native, Duhon earned her master’s degree in historic preservation from the University of Texas in 2009. During college, she participated in a volunteer preservation field school in New Orleans that focused on rebuilding methods after Hurricane Katrina and had her first experience working in historic cemeteries.

“Looking at tombs offered good examples of what happens to historic materials when they’re allowed to degrade over time without restoration,” Duhon said. “We learned techniques like how to mix the right types of mortar and plaster . I really liked it and cataloged that in the back of my mind, that I could really see myself doing this professionally.”

After a stint with a preservation architecture firm in Texas, Duhon moved to New Orleans in 2010 and started her company. Knowing that she wanted to focus on the hands-on monument restoration projects, she guided the business toward smaller projects that could be handled by her four-person crew - all trained preservationists.

Small monuments projects eventually grew into much larger cemetery preservation projects, and now Bayou Preservation restores about 15 to 20 tombs and monuments each year, Duhon said.

Prices for her work typically are determined on a case-by-case basis. Tomb conservation runs from $1,000 to $4,000 depending on its size. This year, the company is on track to restore 25 to 30 tombs, a new record, Duhon said.

“I just kind of put it out there as an option for one of my services,” she said. “I didn’t get a tomb client for probably until at least a year . One client grew into two, two grew into five, and now that’s mainly what we do.”

Bayou Preservation’s growth eventually led it to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and the company’s most famous project yet.

Vandals covered Marie Laveau’s tomb in pink latex-based paint last December. While many of the tombs are care for by the individual families of the interred, the Archdiocese of New Orleans oversees maintenance of the cemetery. Facing criticism for using a pressure washer to remove the paint, the diocese partnered with the nonprofit group Save Our Cemeteries to find a preservationist.

Sherri Peppo, executive director of Archdiocesan Cemeteries of New Orleans, said a few local contractors typically handle the church’s tomb maintenance and restoration needs, but the distinctiveness of Laveau’s tomb and the severity of the damage required specialists.

Through the fundraising efforts of Save Our Cemeteries and the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Bayou Preservation was awarded the $10,000 restoration contract in August.

“This was so unique and high profile. Save Our Cemeteries wanted to be involved and wanted someone more experienced with historic preservation,” Peppo said. “Most of our modern-day tombs are sold with perpetual care, but dating back prior to 30 years ago to the beginning of the cemeteries opening, perpetual care wasn’t mandatory. So there are many in need of repair where it is difficult to track down family members.”

During the three-month restoration project on Marie Laveau’s tomb, Duhon and her three-person staff found almost $3 in change, human teeth, a bullet, a ball of human hair, as well as jewelry and other charms tucked into the decaying mortar joints and plaster.

With the high-profile job under its belt, Bayou Preservation is fielding interest from tomb owners around the state, Duhon said. The company is looking to hire at least one more preservationist to help with the growing workload.

“We’re still getting phone calls from private clients and tomb owners every week, which is great,” she said. “We’re doing a project in Thibodaux restoring a dozen tombs in St. John Cemetery, which is a large project,” Duhon said. “We’re growing so much each year, within the first year we doubled, and doubled again the next. It’s very exciting.”

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Information from: New Orleans CityBusiness, https://www.neworleanscitybusiness.com

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