By Amy Wenk
Harmony Grove Cemetery, at the corner of West Paces Ferry and Chatham roads, is about to enter Phase 3 of its restoration project.
On Oct. 4, the Buckhead Heritage Society, as part of Hands On Atlanta Day (www.handsonatlanta.org), will play host to a volunteer project at the historic cemetery.
Participants will implement the master landscaping plan developed by landscape architects Jim Cothran and Andrew Kohr of Robert & Co., who won awards for their design of Oakland Cemetery.
“The intent of the master plan is to put in landscaping to beautify the cemetery, but also to only put in landscaping that is consistent with what you would have found at the cemetery in the 1870s,” said Wright Mitchell, the president of the Buckhead Heritage Society. “It is going to be a lot of hard work. Hopefully we will have at least 40 volunteers.”
The volunteers will engage in a variety of landscaping tasks, including digging, preparing soil, planting and mulching. The vegetation to be planted includes cherry laurel, flowering dogwood, Canadian hemlock, Southern shield fern and English ivy. The project will last from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. and will include a catered lunch from The Varsity.
It has been about a year since the second phase of restoration was complete. In the interim, several improvements and much research and planning have occurred.
This summer, Pace Academy senior Alex Young got involved with the cemetery restoration. After reading an article in the Buckhead Reporter, Alex decided to complete his Eagle Scout project at Harmony Grove.
“I never really heard of anyone doing an Eagle project in a cemetery, and it sounded like something they really needed some help with,” the 17-year-old said. “It was just a great opportunity to add something and make it look a little bit better on top of what the Buckhead Heritage Society did.”
So after nearly a year of planning, Alex began installing paths and three benches at the cemetery. He solicited donations from the community and discounts from suppliers for the materials. The Buckhead Heritage Society helped by purchasing the 3 tons of Tennessee orchard stone needed to construct the winding paths, which now encircle Harmony Grove.
With help from his friends from Troop 298 at Northside United Methodist Church, Pace Academy and others, Alex labored each Saturday for about a month until the work was complete June 3.
“After we were done, I thought it looked great,” said Alex, who has been active in Scouts since fifth grade. “I’m on the cross country team, and we run down West Paces a lot, so it’s really cool to see the bench out on West Paces and know that that’s my project. I’m really pleased with the result.”
The cemetery’s master landscaping plan also was completed in the past year. In addition to the aforementioned landscaping, the plan calls for the construction of a stacked-stone retaining wall, which will be built in the next phase of restoration.
“The slope there that abuts Chatham is eroding, and there are some graves right up on top of that slope,” Mitchell said. “We are still trying to find someone that will donate the services for the wall, possibly a local contractor.”
In accordance with the landscaping plan, a small stone terrace at the entrance and interpretive signage throughout the cemetery will be installed in the next phase.
“It is our goal to be finished with the restoration by spring of 2009,” Mitchell said. “Of course, that is somewhat contingent upon our ability to raise the necessary funds to purchase the signs, the wall, etc.”
Mitchell added that additional research into the history of the cemetery revealed that two churches, one Congregational and one Baptist, formerly occupied the property.
“The origins of the cemetery are somewhat murky, because the earliest marked graves date to 1870,” Mitchell said. “The earliest we can actually place a church on the property is 1892, but there is a pretty good possibility that there was something there before that, maybe even as early as 1827.”
The Buckhead Heritage Society began restoration of the cemetery in April 2007. At that time, vast amounts of ivy, trees and other fast-growing nuisance vegetation were eradicated.
In October 2007, Phase 2 was complete. It involved locating unidentified graves. Using a variety of techniques, including surface feature analysis and below-ground probing, mortuary archaeologists documented 131 previously unidentified graves, bringing the total burials to 171.
The cemetery is said to be one of the most historically significant in Atlanta.
Among the prominent individuals buried at Harmony Grove is John Sims, the father of Atlanta Mayor Walter A. Sims, who served from 1922 to 1926.
Several Confederate Civil War veterans are buried at the cemetery, as are the great-grandparents of actress Julia Roberts. The most recent burial at the cemetery took place in 1982.