Oakland Cemetery is Atlanta’s oldest public park, located on 48 acres adjacent to bustling Memorial Drive and less than a mile from the heart of Downtown.
More than 125,000 people visit the cemetery every year, from history buffs to nature lovers to employees sitting under a shady tree on their lunch break, eating a meal from a nearby restaurant in Grant Park.
“There’s just something for everybody,” said Richard Harker, executive director of the Historic Oakland Foundation, the nonprofit organization that partners with the city to preserve, restore, enhance and share the 173-year-old cemetery with the public.
“My passion is taking care of this place, but also making it as accessible for as many people as possible,” he said. “It’s a special space in our city.”
On Sept. 5 at 10:30 a.m., the Historic Oakland Foundation will gather with city officials, including Mayor Andre Dickens, outside the cemetery’s main gate at 374 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive SE for a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of its new 10,000-square-foot visitor center.
The building, to be built on nearly two acres, is the largest addition to Oakland Cemetery. Its design incorporates red brick as a nod to the dominant material used at the historic site. The visitor center will also include large glass windows that will face Martin Luther King Jr. Drive with a balcony overlooking the cemetery.
The design, by Smith Dalia Architects, has been panned by some as “boring.” Harker said the building and expanded park space surrounding it, including a trail and event lawn, would allow the foundation to better integrate into the surrounding community and provide a “world-class experience of what we think is a world-class historic site.”
“People have recognized the need for Oakland to have this facility, to elevate this hidden gem into the top-top tier of organizations in our city,” he said. “We know Oakland is a jewel here in our city and this facility is going to allow us to share it in even more ways.”
The Visitor Center will enable the Historic Oakland Foundation to provide more programming without having to worry about summer heat or winter freezes, Harker said.
Pragmatically, added programming creates more revenue that can be reinvested in preserving and restoring Oakland. Harker envisions the visitor center as a community facility where events, lectures and civic forums can take place around issues such as history, race and environmental justice. After all, much of Atlanta’s history — the good and the bad — is recorded in Oakland Cemetery, he said.
“We want to be a place where this city can wrestle with its idea of itself,” Harker said of the new building. “How can you understand how to chart a more equitable future if you don’t understand where you’ve come from?”
Historic Oakland Foundation worked with Southface Institute to have the building EarthCraft certified upon completion and to make the building “net zero” — producing more energy than it consumes.
Funding for the project, including purchasing the land that includes the cemetery’s gravel parking lot and two asphalt parcels, comes from the Historic Oakland Foundation’s $14 million Living History Capital Campaign. The campaign also funded the recently completed rehabilitation of the Oakland Bell Tower.
Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, also contributed funding to the visitor center project, including a recent $1.5 million grant from the Eastside Tax Allocation District.
• Construction for the visitorcenter is expected to take 18-24 months.
• The new land for the visitor center is a block away from the King Memorial MARTA station. It connects the cemetery to the Memorial Drive Greenway that leads to the State Capitol and is the southern terminus for the Sweet Auburn Hero Walk.
The visitor center will include:
• 1,000 square feet for an expanded museum store and gift shop.
• 3,000 square feet of common area space including classrooms, a conference room, restrooms, a break room, a small warehouse and janitorial space.
• 3,000 square feet for a catering kitchen.
• 3,000 square feet of office space for staff, along with conference rooms and meeting space.