Oakland Cemetery: This Place Matters

by Neale Nickels, Director of Preservation

Director of Preservation Neale Nickels and Historic Oakland Foundation staff

Director of Preservation Neale Nickels won the 2016 Jenny D. Thurston Memorial Award

On Monday evening I was very humbled and honored to win the Jenny D. Thurston Memorial Award at the 2016 Atlanta Urban Design Commission Awards of Excellence ceremony. It made me think a lot about why I chose preservation as a career path and how it touches people’s lives. Having been in Atlanta for just two years now, I feel incredibly thankful to have the opportunity to serve the community as Historic Oakland Foundation’s Director of Preservation. I’m also grateful for the doors my position has opened for me, and the connections I’ve made so far.

At Oakland Cemetery, I feel like I am getting to know Atlanta from the inside-out, starting with some of its earliest history. Surrounded by the city’s founding fathers and mothers and thousands of others who have made Atlanta such a wonderful place, and being charged with the stewardship of their memorials, is why preservation matters. Whenever I hear one of our faithful volunteers telling a visitor the stories about residents like Abbie Howard, Georgia Harris, Margaret Mitchell, or The Goat Man, that’s why preservation matters. When a family upholds a decades-long tradition of gathering at Oakland every Christmas to decorate their family plot and picnic, that’s why preservation matters. These are just a few of the many reasons why Oakland Cemetery matters.

This-Place-MattersPreservation is so much more than making a place look pretty – though it can be a powerful tool that allows you to engage an audience that might otherwise stay away. At Oakland Cemetery we strive to preserve headstones, walls, and walkways, and maintain a Victorian-period landscape so that the community can learn about their past and appreciate the people who colored Atlanta’s history. Want to learn about the history of brewers and distillers in Atlanta? Come to Oakland. How about baseball? Yep, we have a tour for that, too. Or how about our newest special topic tour on Atlanta’s role in transportation? All aboard!

Perhaps we don’t know much about the person whose monument we just leveled. Well, preservation in this case is about honor and respect. My predecessor once told me, paraphrasing author David Eagleman, that “You die three times: when your body no longer functions, when you are buried, and the last time your name is spoken.” As long as those monuments are still standing, the spirit of the individual is still alive. We might not know who they were, but we still care. Wouldn’t you hope that someone would one day show you the same respect?

As I write this I look out my window and see a pair of young mothers rolling their babies toward our “Out in the Rain” fountain. It’s so wonderful to see them enjoying the beautiful weather, our lovely gardens, and experiencing this peaceful haven right in the middle of a bustling metropolis. I’m reminded again that this place matters to so many people, for so many reasons.