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Grant Will Help Restore Oconee Hill Cemetery

Athens-Clarke County, in conjunction with Friends of Oconee Hill Cemetery, recently received an $11,000 grant from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to preserve and restore the Oconee Hill Cemetery, located near Sanford Stadium between Carr’s Hill and the University of Georgia campus.

The Friends of Oconee Hill Cemetery have raised over $450,000 since the group’s inception in 1999. With these funds, they have restored the sexton’s cottage, which served as a residence for over 80 years and is now used as reception space for families and friends gathering before or after a funeral service. The group also restored the historic iron truss bridge—which has spanned the Oconee River to connect the two sections of the cemetery for over a century—and spent money on many other preservation and restoration efforts, such as providing railings for steps, rebuilding collapsed retaining walls, restoring historic decorative iron railings and numerous landscaping projects.  

And while the restoration of both the sexton’s cottage and the bridge won awards from the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, there are many more projects that need to be completed—less visible projects that exceed the budget raised by the Friends.  

Oconee Hill Cemetery is an “outstanding example of the fashionable natural landscape cemetery movement” that dates back to the early 19th century, according to the grant application prepared by the Athens-Clarke County Human and Economic Development Department. Natural landscape cemeteries generally include rolling terrain, flowing water, scenic vistas and woods; Oconee Hill Cemetery has all of these features and is one of the first such burial grounds in the South. 

It also has over two centuries’ worth of mortuary art and is the resting place for many people of local, state and national significance, including Dr. Edwin Newton, founder of the first ladies garden club in America; Dr. Crawford W. Long, a pioneer in anesthesia; Dr. Lorenzo Moss, who developed a method of classifying blood groups; and Ricky Wilson, an original member of The B-52s.  

Also interred in Oconee Hill Cemetery are soldiers from every war, even the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, both of which pre-date the cemetery. (Original burial plots date to 1856.) Their remains were moved to family plots from other cemeteries.

There are also two Georgia governors, nine UGA presidents and four Confederate generals, including Howell and T.R.R. Cobb (whose twin-octagonal-bay house is located across Hill Street from the ACHF headquarters on Prince Avenue).  

The cemetery has been interracial from the beginning, though, sadly, the African American section of the cemetery had poorly marked graves, and records were lost in a fire, making these graves from the 1800’s difficult to identify.  

The grant money will be used to create a master plan for the cemetery to help direct preservation and maintenance efforts. Another major aspect of this project includes assessing the trees in the cemetery. The forest located in the cemetery has “matured to a critical point where mortality exceeds recruitment,” and invasive species are choking out native flora. A tree management plan has been needed for many years now, but funds have not been available. Fifty-eight of Oconee Hill Cemetery’s 120 acres are wooded; numerous individual trees and tree clusters are also located throughout the cemetery.  

Back to the Drawing Board for DuBose Builder

On a more controversial note, the only thing in Athens deader than a necropolis is Tom Ellis’s addition to his 1913 cottage at 321 Dubose Ave. in the Boulevard Historic District.  The massive design approved by the ACC Historic Preservation Commission last year was built nearly three feet taller than approved, making it 14 feet taller than the original structure. Because it violated the approved plans, ACC issued Ellis two citations earlier this year, for which he is headed to court in July. 

Ellis and his team tried to convince the HPC to approve the addition retroactively at a meeting last week. They argued that the scale of the addition does not visually dwarf the original structure and, because the architecture of the addition is good, it should be allowed. 

From a few angles, he’s right, the addition does not look so bad. But from other angles, it looks like a hulking green brontosaurus in the back yard, as neighbors have been quick to point out. 

Ellis proposed hacking off three feet of gable to level the top of the roof to the originally approved height, but the HPC denied that alteration. Unless he can find a way to bring the addition in line with what the HPC approved, or he wins in court, he’ll have to tear it down.