By Neale Nickels
Director of Preservation
One thing that distinguishes Oakland Cemetery is its beautiful gardens. Historically, Oakland operated a greenhouse for the preservation of warm-weather plants during the winter. It was presumably used by the staff for maintaining public spaces, and was known to serve also as the city greenhouse. Even in the recent past, the gardens staff at HOF has used the greenhouse space – though now only a shell of its former self – for propagation of plants used during the landscape restoration.
The area of the cemetery where the greenhouse is – on the southwest side of Potter’s Field – also contains the carriage house, the coal house or boiler room that served the greenhouse, and formerly a stable building. We refer to the area colloquially as the “Operations Center” of the cemetery. It’s rare for a cemetery to have and interpret this kind of space, but we’re interested in learning more about the history of this back-of-house yet pivotal part of the operation.
Back to the greenhouse – what do we know? It boils down to this: in about 1870 a pit was dug to make a primitive “greenhouse,” probably like a walk-in version of a cold frame (see Fact #10 here). In 1873 the city authorized the erection of the first “Hot House” at Oakland, which was quickly augmented by a structure three times as large, as the first one proved inadequate. The larger one was to be heated by a furnace and the first hot house by a stove.
An 1892 bird’s eye view painting of Atlanta clearly displays Oakland, yet the “Operations Center” buildings are not depicted, nor is any building resembling a greenhouse on the grounds. It could be that the producers didn’t capture the detail, or the hot houses had been razed by then – we don’t have much more evidence. We do know, however, that the walls that remain of the current greenhouse were built about 1900, and probably coincidental with the other buildings in that area. The greenhouse was still standing in the later third of the century, but the glass, steel and wood was removed due to safety concerns, though the brick walls, concrete planting tables, and some of the plumbing infrastructure remains.
Because we don’t know the exact location of the greenhouse, we decided to do some digging. Literally. We reached out to our friends at Georgia State University’s Anthropology Department, and aided by Dr. Jeffrey Glover, some of his students, and volunteers garnered through the Society for Georgia Archaeology, we have begun preliminary excavations of the greenhouse floor to learn as much as we can about the history of that building, and should we be so lucky, the earlier greenhouses at Oakland Cemetery.
So far, we have opened up a trench that runs north-south and bisects several features as well as a one-meter square unit. We are hoping to identify elements and layout of the brick pathways and the flue system that distributed heat via a coal-fired furnace throughout the greenhouse. It is possible that we may be able to determine the construction sequence of the greenhouse and answer the question: was the 1900 (and current) greenhouse built on the same location as the early greenhouses, and if so, can we determine their footprint?
Once we have gathered information, we will assemble a history and will present it, along with any interesting artifacts, to our visitors. An interpretive display is being planned. We are excited to learn more about this important part of Oakland’s history, and are so grateful to Dr. Glover and the volunteers who have been helping with the excavation! A hearty thank you to you all.
By Neale Nickels