A rendering of the visitor center.

On Tuesday, Sept. 5, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari, Commissioner of Parks and Recreation Justin Cutler, and Invest Atlanta CEO Dr. Eloisa Klementich joined Historic Oakland Foundation leadership and Oakland Cemetery friends and supporters for the ceremonial groundbreaking of a new Oakland Cemetery Visitor Center just outside the historic Cemetery’s main gate.

Some may wonder, “Why does a cemetery need a visitor center?” The answer has its roots in the late 1800s, when Atlanta’s original public Cemetery, created in 1850 as a young Atlanta was experiencing its first period of rapid growth, was renamed Oakland Cemetery and redesigned using the principles of Victorian garden cemeteries like Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For the Victorians, a cemetery wasn’t just a place where the dead could rest in peace. It was also a place for the living, and so Oakland became Atlanta’s first public greenspace. The establishment of the meandering pathways, extensive gardens, and lush tree canopy that gave Oakland its name transformed the Cemetery into a place of recreation and respite for the living at a time before the city’s first public parks. 

Richard Harker is the Executive Director of Historic Oakland Foundation at historic Oakland Cemetery. Historic Oakland Foundation partners with the City of Atlanta to preserve, restore, enhance, and share Oakland Cemetery, and welcomes over 125,000 visitors a year to the city of Atlanta’s oldest public greenspace and original cemetery.

Fast forward nearly a century to 1976, when volunteers interested in restoring a neglected and time-worn Oakland to its former glory sought to bring visitors back to the Cemetery’s 48 acres and reintroduce Atlantans to the stories of the Atlanta pioneers, builders and founders who rest here. They introduced the Cemetery’s first public tours, designed to raise money to fund hardscape and garden restoration. Since then, the Historic Oakland Foundation, with its mission to restore, preserve, enhance, and share Oakland in partnership with the City of Atlanta, has restored and preserved nearly half the Cemetery. 

An estimated 125,000 visitors pass through Oakland’s gates to experience the art and architecture of its mausolea and headstones and enjoy its lush gardens each year. The Foundation’s more than three dozen public programs and tours several hundreds of thousands of Atlantans annually and share the history of Atlanta via the fascinating stories of some of the 70,000 “residents” who rest at Oakland. With more than 50 percent of the Cemetery left to be restored, HOF is nowhere close to being finished.

As construction on Oakland’s visitor center commences, HOF begins to realize a decades-long dream for the Historic Oakland Foundation and the City of Atlanta. The project is part of a strategic plan designed to increase the Foundation’s ability to share the complex histories of both the Cemetery and the City it serves. Sixteen years ago, with help from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation and Invest Atlanta, we purchased a lot outside the Cemetery’s main western gate. 

Five years ago, we acquired an adjacent with the support of The Conservation Fund. Then, in early 2022, the Foundation launched its first-ever capital campaign with an ambitious goal of raising fourteen million dollars in order to fund three projects: the restoration of the Cemetery’s East Hill section, the rehabilitation of the 1899 Oakland Bell Tower, and the construction of a new visitor center outside the Cemetery’s main gate. We are thrilled to reach the point where we are ready to break ground on our new building.

As the Historic Oakland Foundation approaches its 50th year, we are expanding our ability not only to preserve Oakland and share its many stories but also to serve the communities around us. At the groundbreaking ceremony, for example, Jayden Williams, a recent participant in the Foundation’s inaugural Youth Landscape and Hardscape Team workforce development program, spoke about the transformational impact that the program has had on him as he started to think about his post-high school future. 

Without the 2022 rehabilitation of the Oakland Bell Tower, program participants would have lacked indoor space where they could learn personal finance and resume-building skills. The additional space that the new Visitor Center will provide will allow us to expand this new program and realize other new educational programming.

Another way the Historic Oakland Foundation can serve Atlanta’s communities is through a commitment to a greener future for our city. We are collaborating with Southface Institute to design a net-zero energy, EarthCraft-certified building that incorporates solar panels, electric vehicle charging stations, bike fix-it stations and racks, bioretention gardens to capture and divert rainwater away from the sewer system, and pollinator gardens around the building. We are also using salvaged materials from the Lifecycle Building Center in construction, including beautiful tiles from the recently shuttered Nabisco factory in Sylvan Hills: its own important slice of Atlanta history.

In their remarks at the Visitor Center groundbreaking, Mayor Dickens, Commissioner Cutler, and Councilmember Bakhtiari all noted what a vital place Oakland Cemetery is for the City of Atlanta and its residents. We, of course, agree. HOF is committed to using its new facility to create meaningful opportunities for civic dialogue and education. The new building will provide meeting space for civic groups working to uplift communities, create equity. and help build the beloved community envisioned by Martin Luther King Jr., whose final resting place is just a stone’s throw from Oakland’s gates.

So why a visitor center for a cemetery? It’s simple, really. There is nowhere in our city that helps us understand ourselves, our past, how we’ve arrived at this present, and how we can chart a more just and equitable future better than Oakland Cemetery.

Historic Oakland Foundation owes a great debt of gratitude to the thousands of supporters who have made our $14 million Living History Capital Campaign, our first capital campaign, a resounding success and are especially grateful to Invest Atlanta, the City of Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation, Councilmembers Natalyn Archibong and Liliana Bakhtiari, and the Historic Oakland Foundation Board for their collective leadership of this project since it was first conceived nearly two decades ago. Countless partners, including The Conservation Fund, Park Pride, Trees Atlanta, and our architects, Smith Dalia Architects and general contractor J.M. Wilkerson, have been equally crucial in advancing this historic project to this exciting moment. 

We look forward to sharing construction progress with you over the next 18 to 24 months and to unveiling a world-class facility for this world-class historic site very soon. To keep up to date with the Visitor Center construction progress and all the happenings at historic Oakland Cemetery, visit click here

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