Back in 1884, Oakland Cemetery was becoming overcrowded with departed souls. A group of prominent Atlantans looked west of Downtown to a large swath of rolling land still scarred by the bloody Battle of Ezra Church during the Civil War. It was on this site that Westview Cemetery became the final resting place of the first of more than 125,000 residents – and counting.
In the intervening years, the Westview community, established in 1910, and its quaint bungalows have become one of the city’s most desired neighborhoods with the arrival of the Atlanta BeltLine’s Westside Trail. Westview Cemetery is also primed for a renovation of its historic, but aging structures and grounds.
To that end, Westview Cemetery and the Atlanta Preservation Center have launched The Friends of Historic Westview Cemetery with plans to not only bring more attention to the nearly 600-acre burial ground, but to raise money for its historic upkeep.
Oakland Cemetery is the resting place of golf great Bobby Jones and “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell and Maynard Jackson. Westview’s roster of permanent residents is equally impressive: Coca-Cola founder Asa G. Candler, the soft drink company’s president Robert Woodruff, Atlanta Symphony Conductor Robert Shaw, Atlanta Falcons owner Rankin Smith, Civil Rights icons Rev. Joseph, Evelyn Lowery, Vivian Jones and Donald Hollowell, and beloved local restaurateur and LGBTQ activist Ria Pell, to name a few.
Atlanta Preservation Center’s new executive director David Y. Mitchell said that unlike Oakland, which holds a handful of burials a year, Westview is an active site with regular funeral services. It is expected that Westview’s permanent residents’ list will grow to a quarter of a million.
It’s also a tourist attraction and popular filming location, with the massive Westview Abbey chapel and mausoleum – one of the largest in the country – recently doubling for drug kingpin Omar Navarro’s lair in the Netflix series “Ozark.”
Mitchell said he hopes that Friends of Westview will help transform the site into a place for repeat visits, as well as a tranquil place for walking and contemplation. He said the cemetery’s recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places was another step toward bringing wider recognition to the wonders of Westview.
“There is a weird, complex intersection of beauty and mortality at Westview,” Mitchell said. “You’ll want to come back again and again.”
The first project on the Friends of Westview’s list is the Gatehouse structure, which was formerly the main entrance to the cemetery. Constructed in 1890, the Romanesque Revival bell tower is a Westside landmark. Additions on either side of the gate were used for office space, storage, and a former flower shop that provided plants for gravesites.
Mitchell envisions the Gatehouse being used for events, exhibitions, and community meetings, as well as a welcome center with public, unisex bathrooms.
Also on the list of projects is restoration of stained glass windows in the Abbey’s chapel. The 38 panels depicting the life of Christ were made by the LA ART Glass Company in 1943 when the Abbey was originally conceived by Asa Candler Jr., the son of the Coca-Cola founder.
Since construction of the Abbey took place during World War II, water supply lines were made of scrap metal since most raw materials were dedicated to the war effort. The decay of the water lines means the Abbey has long been without working bathrooms or the ability to operate the lawn fountain. Mitchell said a complete rebuild of the pipe system could be done by 2025 with public donations.
Author Jeff Clemmons chronicled the creation of the necropolis in his 2018 book “Atlanta’s Historic Westview Cemetery” along with its colorful and often controversial history. Asa Candler Jr. – the eccentric millionaire who had himself installed as director of the cemetery association in 1934 and would remain there for 21 years – oversaw Westview’s biggest expansion, including the building of the Abbey, greenhouses, a trophy room for his big game conquests, and even a movie theater.
Clemmons said Candler ran afoul of mourners and legislators as he went about the “business of death” at Westview. Candler ran a one-stop shop for the bereaved, offering ambulance service, funeral home, embalming service, and the Westview Flower Company to provide graveside flowers.
Candler was sued numerous times for alleged desecration when he removed gravestones and plants from Westview’s original “lawn park” style – which included large headstones and markers – for the modern “memorial park” style with bronze markers flush to the ground. The Georgia General Assembly passed legislation in 1951 that would breakup Westview’s various mortuary services and put it under the supervision of the state cemetery board, effectively ending Candler’s association with Westview.
Since that time, the Bowen family have been the stewards of Westview Cemetery for three generations. Charles Bowen, the current Director of Westview, is very excited how this collaboration will enable more appreciation for this remarkable space.
Candler’s grandiosity has left a lasting mark on Westview. It is impossible not to look out over the terraced landscape or walk down the marbled halls of the Abbey mausoleum and columbarium, pausing to view the names of the city’s most notable families, and not feel awed by the 136 years of history that has come before and will continue long after we’re gone.
For more information and to join Friends of Westview, visit friendsofwestviewcemetery.org.