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.