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Oakland Cemetery: New visitors center, restored Bell Tower part of major upgrade

Oakland Cemetery Bell Tower. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

By David Pendered

Oakland Cemetery is embarking on its largest rehabilitation program in memory. The $12.5 million project is to begin Tuesday, with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms scheduled to lead a ceremonial groundbreaking at the 1899 Bell Tower building.

This rendering shows the first floor of the rehabilitated Bell Tower. (Image courtesy of Historic Oakland Foundation.)

The cemetery-wide project fulfills many of the aspirations Richard Harker outlined in January, soon after he was named executive director of Historic Oakland Foundation. Funders responded to Harker’s vision by providing about $10 million of the total expected budget even before the Living History capital campaign was widely announced.

“This charts a new chapter in our ability to help everybody, whether school children or the general public,” Harker said Nov. 23. “Historic Oakland Foundation will be able to deliver new public programs we’ve never been able to deliver before because we didn’t have the space.”

Harker offered a clear direction of the public programs he hopes to foster once space is available.

“Whether it’s to reboot a city forum on confederate monuments, or whether it’s a civic dialogue about racial equity and the history of racial inequality in our city, or book talks, or an expanded K-12 program — we will have the indoor space to address these subjects,” Harker said.

The Historic Oakland Foundation provided details of three projects. The full descriptions, including some work already done at East Hill, are:

The Bell Tower at Oakland Cemetery. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

  • “Rehabilitation of the iconic 1899 Oakland Bell Tower [to begin this month] into an arts and culture space with new open-air terraces offering beautiful skyline views, revolving exhibit space on the ground level, and new potential for private event bookings, all while elevating the building’s historic charm and making it ADA-accessible for the first time
  • “A new Visitors Center [to begin in 2022], which will be constructed outside of the cemetery’s main gates and will give the Foundation greater visibility and integration into the surrounding neighborhoods and Memorial Drive amenities, such as the Memorial Drive Greenway. The new Visitors Center will feature an expanded Visitors Center and Museum Store, flexible programming space to expand K-12 educational offerings and private rentals, exhibit space to more effectively tell the story of Oakland Cemetery’s role in the history of Atlanta, staff offices, and community meeting space
  • “Beautification of six acres of the East Hill section of the cemetery [ongoing, 50 percent complete] with new hardscaping and landscaping as well as the installation of a new East Gate at Memorial Drive and Boulevard (opened July 2020) and the restoration of the 1908 Women’s Comfort Station (opened September 2019 thanks to early campaign contributions)”

This rendering shows the porch planned at the Bell Tower. (Image courtesy of Historic Oakland Foundation.)

The projects already complete date to David Moore’s 15-year tenure as the foundation’s executive director. Moore’s retirement set the stage for Harker to step up from his position as co-executive director. Harker was named to that position in 2019, following two years as director of programs and volunteers. Harker grew up near London and has a doctorate from Georgia State University.

The Living History campaign has drawn support from more than 225 donors through a campaign committee co-chaired by Valerie Jackson, widow of the late Mayor Maynard Jackson, and May B. Hollis, a longtime volunteer with the Historic Oakland Foundation.

Major contributors include:

Oakland Cemetery Bell Tower. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

  • Lettie Pate Evans Foundation, $1.5 million;
  • Historic Oakland Foundation board, backed by an anonymous donation, at more than $1.5 million
  • Imlay Foundation, plus support from its chair, Mary Ellen Imlay, at $900,000 for the Bell Tower project
  • The City of Atlanta provided $3.2 million through two programs overseen by Invest Atlanta, the city’s development arm that’s chaired by the mayor — proceeds of the Eastside TAD, and a land acquisition fund

“We really see this campaign and these projects as elevating our ability to share Oakland and do it in a more extensive way,” Harker said. “What better way to interpret our city’s history, to understand who we are as a community, and to chart a path forward than an exploration of that history in one of our oldest places.”

Notes to readers:

Tuesday at 10 a.m.: Ceremonial groundbreaking of the rehabilitation at the Bell Tower. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is to preside, with additional comments by Atlanta Parks Commissioner John Dargle; Mary Ellen Imlay, chair and president of the Imlay Foundation; Eloisa Klementich, president and CEO of Invest Atlanta; and Richard Harker, executive director of the Historic Oakland Foundation.

Ongoing: To donate to the Historic Oakland Foundation’s rehabilitation efforts at the cemetery, email Harker at rharker@oaklandcemetery.com or Director of Development Emily Yerke at eyerke@oaklandcemetery.com.

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David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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