Restoring Atlanta's Historic Oakland Cemetery

The preservation of a well-rounded, park-like environment

Oakland CemeteryWith its joggers, bike-riders, and coffee-sipping bench sitters, Oakland Cemetery could be mistaken for a neighborhood park. It has the look of an arboretum or botanical garden. TripAdvisor's visitors have called it 'by far the prettiest place in Atlanta,' and ranked it highly as an attraction.

Situated on a rise in East Atlanta with the downtown skyline as its backdrop, Oakland Cemetery dates from 1850. It has been called a “well-rounded cemetery park,” a success story in the movement to reclaim urban cemeteries as public green space.

Known as the burial ground of Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell and golf legend Bobby Jones, it has long attracted hordes of “Windies” and golf worshippers. 

But the casual visitor today is drawn to Oakland’s tranquil landscape, its Victorian mausoleums, and the stories of its less-famous residents.

Few would guess that, but for the efforts of the Historic Oakland Foundation (HOF), this cemetery’s best attributes would be lost. Since 1976, the HOF’s staff and large volunteer force has shepherded Oakland from a lonely, foreboding place to a green oasis bustling with neighbors, city residents, and tourists. Thanks to its guided tours, festivals, and fun runs, nearly everyone who walks through Oakland’s gates walks out an enthusiast. TripAdvisor’s visitors have called it “by far the prettiest place in Atlanta.”

Thirty years ago Oakland, situated near two housing projects and an abandoned cotton mill, had a security problem, leading the city to close off its side gates. As it disappeared from public view behind high brick walls, it disappeared from public use. The cemetery’s owner, the City of Atlanta, made perfunctory efforts to maintain it, says HOF trustee and former board chair May B. Hollis, streamlining the job by removing the hedges and flowers from burial plots once lovingly tended by family members.

Yet the turn of the millennium marked a new era, as East Atlanta began making strides toward revitalization. The cotton mill became urban lofts. Mixed-income apartments replaced public housing projects. Plans for a mile-long green corridor stretching from the Georgia State Capitol to Oakland’s front gate started to take shape. Across the street, a restaurant named Six Feet Under Pub & Fish House opened its doors.

Even then, the area was a hard-scrabble place, says Tad Mitchell, who owns the restaurant along with his wife, Nancy. But the HOF had sensed a change in the wind. In 2002, it adopted a long-range plan that proposed revitalization of the cemetery in ten phases. Subsequently, grants, corporate sponsorships, and private donations enabled Oakland to complete Phases I and II, restoring the areas closest to the cemetery’s most visited areas, like the land around the Bell Tower.

Oakland
Visitors to Oakland Cemetery enjoy a carriage ride.

Credit: Dinny Addison

The timing was right. The economy was booming, Mitchell’s restaurant was thriving, and the neighborhood was turning around. “It was like a good perfect storm where all boats rise with the tide,” HOF’s Executive Director David Moore says. Oakland added to the synergy by re-opening its south gate, allowing diners from Six Feet Under to flow across the street to check out the “What’s in Bloom” sign or to listen to the African-American Cell Phone Tour while waiting for the call that their table is ready.

When a real “perfect storm” of a tornado hit in 2008, Oakland’s newfound supporters helped it bounce back. It was proof that the cemetery’s viability depends on bringing visitors through the door. “If you tell people to stay out, then this place will be a weed-filled mess again, a haven for drug dealers and violence,” warns Moore. “Use, not disuse, is what’s going to sustain us.”

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