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Documenting Oakland Cemetery’s 1899 Bell Tower

Preserving and celebrating the past can be rewarding, but it can also be hard work. For nearly two months, in my role as a Georgia State Heritage Preservation intern, I have been meticulously documenting the Bell Tower building both inside and out. It will soon undergo a needed rehabilitation, but as stewards of this majestic old structure, we are obligated to record its current state before construction begins.

Documentation is the process of capturing as many details about a historic building as possible. The simplest way is photography, but that lacks dimensional information and often does not show small features in enough detail. The gold standard of documentation is called HABS which stands for Historic American Building Survey. Originally started as a federal work program for unemployed architects during the Great Depression, HABS level documentation continues today by providing architectural quality renderings that are both highly informative and often beautiful. Today, the National Park Service, in conjunction with the Library of Congress, manages a collection of over 500,000 separate HABS records from around the nation.

Over multiple days, I meticulously drew, measured, and photographed every inch of the structure from the vaults in the basement to the bell in the tower. Along the way, I fell in love with the beautiful arched gothic windows, the four types of hardwood flooring and my personal favorite, the elegant fireplace in Sam Reed’s office.

Here at Oakland, we combined traditional HABS techniques with three-dimensional modeling, digital photography, and field notations. Over multiple days, I meticulously drew, measured, and photographed every inch of the structure from the vaults in the basement to the bell in the tower. Along the way, I fell in love with the beautiful arched gothic windows, the four types of hardwood flooring and my personal favorite, the elegant fireplace in Sam Reed’s office.

One technique I’ve employed is called structure from motion (sfm) or photogrammetry. This uses a series of still digital images to create a 3D point cloud onto which one then applies a surface or texture map. The Bell Tower animation was created in Agisoft’s Metashape from 154 individual photographs. A similar approach was used for the actual bell itself. The details this process captures can be excellent. You can read the foundry’s imprint on the bell – “Hillsboro, GA (see it in the image gallery below).”

This beautiful old Romanesque Revival structure has already led a full life. Now, with the aid and support of the community, it will get a new lease on life and continue to serve as the anchor of this cherished public space.

I combined all these sources into a single document organized by room. The goal is to produce enough detailed information such that any interested party in the future could look back on the Bell Tower and know exactly how it was configured and detailed in 2022. From the rise and run of the stairs, to the molding on the baseboards, to the bolts holding the bell in place, we got it all.

This beautiful old Romanesque Revival structure has already led a full life. Now, with the aid and support of the community, it will get a new lease on life and continue to serve as the anchor of this cherished public space. It’s been my honor to try and capture its wonderful spirit and I look forward to the secrets it may reveal once construction begins. We’ll keep you posted.

Learn more about the rehabilitation and about Historic Oakland Foundation’s Living History Capital Campaign.

Those interested in supporting this special chapter at Oakland can visit oaklandcemetery.com/capital-campaign or email Executive Director Richard Harker at rharker@oaklandcemetery.com or Senior Director of Development Emily Yerke at eyerke@oaklandcemetery.com.

Eric Menninger is a preservation intern at Historic Oakland Foundation. He has been a documentary producer and director, history teacher, grant writer, and home renovator. 

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