By Lauren Wesley
To unknowing passersby, the southwest corner of West Paces Ferry and Chatham Road is simply a forgotten cemetery riddled with thick layers of moss, ivy and crumbled stone.
However, to the residents of the West Paces Ferry corridor, it is a priceless piece of Buckhead history known as the Harmony Grove Cemetery.
Fueled by an admiration for their community’s history, the Buckhead Heritage society, in collaboration with the Buckhead Rotary Club, has decided to undertake a massive restoration of the cemetery.
The project is spearheaded by Wright Mitchell, president of the Buckhead Heritage Society, a newly-formed charitable organization aimed at promoting and preserving the historic nature of Buckhead. Mitchell recently announced the restoration at the private home of a Buckhead resident.
“As a board, Buckhead Heritage Society had been discussing projects to do,” said Mitchell. He continued, “We’re a new group, so we decided we were going to do one project and do it well so that we could raise awareness of our group.”
The restoration, which will take approximately six months for completion, will be lead by Buckhead Heritage Society board member and landscape architect Edward Daugherty. Vijay Patel, president of Jay Hort Service, will implement the physical restoration under the guidance of Daugherty.
The historical cemetery dates back to the latter part of the 19th century. Established in 1870, the cemetery was originally the familial burial grounds of James H. “Whispering” Smith, one of the largest landowners in the area now known as Buckhead. Harmony Grove Baptist Church was constructed shortly after in the adjacent lot.
Before passing away in 1872, Smith deeded three acres of land to his former slaves. This land, presently on Arden Road, later became New Hope Church and cemetery, which is still in use today.
Although the oldest marked grave, belonging to Smith, is dated 1872, there are numerous unmarked graves, suggesting that the cemetery predates 1865.
The marked graves represent some of Atlanta’s most notable leaders and families. Among those buried at Harmony Grove are John Sims, father of former Atlanta Mayor Walter A. Sims, and relatives of world-renowned actress Julia Roberts.
“There are 41 marked graves representing 15 separate families,” offered Susan Kessler Bernard, board member of the Buckhead Heritage Society and author of Buckhead: A Place for All Time.
One of the main reasons for the restoration, in light of the changing face of Buckhead, is to keep developers from building on the property. Allegedly, Walter Sims, who later inherited the property from his father, received a ruling from the Georgia Supreme Court to keep the land in perpetuity. However, no such ruling can be found at this time.
“We learned that over the years developers have tried to have [the] bodies exhumed and moved away,” explained Mitchell. He further warned, “Buckhead obviously is changing rapidly. Pretty soon, we’re not going to recognize the area right up the street.”
Steps taken toward completion include the initial clean up of the cemetery grounds, a survey of the grounds for unmarked graves, marking and documenting the unmarked graves, restoration of the marked graves and annual upkeep. Projected costs are estimated at $15,000 for the actual restoration and $2,000 for annual upkeep.
As with any task of this nature and proportion, Mitchell said it will take the helping hand of fellow Buckhead residents to assist in the preservation of this historical community.
For more information on the Buckhead Heritage Society or to make a contribution, visit www.buckheadheritage.com.