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Kate Sweeney

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Oakland Cemetery gets a new greenhouse

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A few crumbling brick walls with climbing rose vines are all that remain of one of Historic Oakland Cemetery’s central structures: its greenhouse. The latest version, built in 1900 near the Potter’s Field at the property’s northeastern edge, is mostly a pile of rubble since a violent storm smashed it in the mid-1970s.

But now, Oakland’s getting a new greenhouse on the very same spot.

It began with a phone call last fall. “They had this greenhouse at the Atlanta History Center,” says Sara Henderson, Director of Gardens at Oakland. The greenhouse actually belonged to the Buckhead Men’s Garden Club, which had a special lease agreement with AHC. But since the Cyclorama was moving from Grant Park to the center’s Buckhead campus, the greenhouse had to “move or be bulldozed.” The Club wanted to know: Did Oakland want it?

To Henderson, the new greenhouse—actually built in 1980—seemed fated for the historic cemetery. “When we started doing the initial measurements and drawings,” she says, “we discovered that it slips almost perfectly within the walls of our historic greenhouse.” This means Oakland will be able to preserve what remains of the original walls around the edges of the new structure. The foundation began moving the building to its new home early this month and hopes to be operational by fall.

Oakland will soon be able to offer gardening classes to visitors with aspiring green thumbs. But perhaps even more compellingly, the structure opens up new interpretive possibilities, starting with why the cemetery even had a greenhouse.

Oakland was one of the nation’s first rural-garden cemeteries. In the mid-nineteenth century, Henderson says, “There weren’t city parks; there weren’t parks at all to speak of.” But there were cemeteries like Oakland, where families came to socialize—and garden. The Victorians had a special fondness for exotic species brought back from tropical expeditions. Today’s vogue for native plants was unheard-of back then, when fashionable families adorned burial plots with palms, elephant ears, and even, Henderson says, banana plants. Now that Oakland will have a spot to winter such plants, its 48 acres may start to look a little more tropical.

29. Spend a day with the dead

There is no better way to get to know a city’s past than exploring its citizens’ final resting places. And there’s nothing macabre about graveyard tourism; older cemeteries were designed to be enjoyed by the living, serving as public parks. Here are four must-explore sites.

Decatur Cemetery

A visit to the compact Old Section of Decatur Cemetery feels something like a rambling treasure hunt. The oldest burial here dates from 1827, and along the way, you can see and read about the resting places of vets from the Revolutionary and Civil wars. The full fifty-plus acres are popular with joggers and dog-walkers. decaturga.com

Oakland Cemetery

Founded in 1850, Oakland Cemetery’s forty-eight acres exemplify the nineteenth-century “garden” style. Lavish statuary and flora as well as hundreds of simpler headstones populate Oakland, whose “residents” include Carrie Steele Logan, a former slave who founded Atlanta’s first African American orphanage, and Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell. Golf great Bobby Jones is buried here, and so are mayors Ivan Allen Jr. and Maynard Jackson. Oakland hosts many walking tours, including a self-guided one assisted by an iPhone app. oaklandcemetery.com

South-View Cemetery

The principal of Atlanta’s first black high school. The influential second minister of Ebenezer Baptist Church. A Tuskegee Airmen lieutenant. A victim of the 1906 Atlanta race riot. Touring South-View Cemetery is a walk through local and national civil rights history. The cell phone tour enables visitors to stroll or drive through the original twenty-five acres with interpretive stops along the way. southviewcemetery.com

Sylvester Cemetery

From the mid-1970s until 2003, this East Atlanta site was so mantled in overgrowth it was easy to drive right by without even knowing it was there. Since then, its neighbors have cleared out the thick brush, muscadine vines, and trash to reveal graves that date back to the 1830s. sylvestercemetery.org

This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.

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