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Clues from the Past can Inform New Landscaping at Oakland

Director of Gardens Sara Henderson discusses how she and her team determine period-appropriate landscaping for a lot when there are so few photos of what was there before.

When Oakland was founded in 1850, the lots were sold, and the owners landscaped them as they wished. Today, when landscaping a lot, we try to reflect this practice by interpreting each lot individually. We are most often unable to recreate the original landscaping as we lack photographs or other information to tell us what was there. Sometimes, even when we have that information, we can’t restore the lot to its original look because changes such as tombstones, retaining walls and trees have made it impossible. In these cases, we try to interpret based on clues that we find on the lot.

If we don’t have a family contact, we try to interpret what they might have done by looking at the style and ornamentation of the markers, the lot layout, and the dates the residents were interred.

If we have contact with the family that owns a lot, we work with them to develop a plan for landscaping it. This communication may bring out clues about what was there, such as a remembrance of being with a grandparent when something was planted or other family pertinent stories. If we don’t have a family contact, we try to interpret what they might have done by looking at the style and ornamentation of the markers, the lot layout, and the dates the residents were interred.

An example of a shrubbery plan from a monument catalog.

The headstones themselves give us the most clues. Intricate carvings and a variety of marker styles, for example,  indicate that perhaps the family chose what they thought each person would like instead of planning the look of the lot beforehand. This type of lot allows for a more relaxed, romantic design. Elegantly adorned lots, perhaps by statuary or other decoration, call for an elegant, rather formal planting treatment.  A very controlled, symmetrical, angular marker speaks of a more modern style when these markers were often selected from style books that included planting plans. We will follow the styles of that period in these cases.

Symbolism and the language of flowers were important to the Victorians. If there are carved flowers on a marker, we’ll try to use the same flower type in our landscaping in the belief that the deceased either loved that flower or the family thought the flower’s message was appropriate. On some lots, you’ll see very ornate carved markers with flowers. These may lead us to use an abundance of similar flowers. Floral symbols can be problematic, however. If there are lilies on a marker (which is very common as lilies symbolize purity and resurrection), but the lot is in heavy shade, we may be unable to use them since lilies need sun.

Historic photos that show original landscaping like this one of Bell Tower Ridge are invaluable. Note that this 1894 photo predates the Bell Tower.

Some lots have no headstones or other clues remaining, and we will likely never know what was there. Did the family leave town and never come back? They may have left town with wooden headstones in place which later rotted away. Or, they may have used shrubs as monuments, and they’ve long since died. Perhaps simple fieldstones were carried away by someone who did not know their importance. At one time, the cemetery commission even removed all of the shrubbery to make the grounds easier to maintain. Period photos show tall grasses and weeds in many areas. How could we determine which lot would receive this treatment? In all of these cases, we are left to do the best we can to imagine what might have been.

Oakland Cemetery continues to evolve. We are pleased to work with our newest families whether they embrace a historic style or want a look that is more in keeping with today. This new landscaping will become part of Oakland’s history, too.

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