These vaults were common in the 19th century, serving as temporary holding places for the deceased when temperatures dropped, preventing horse-drawn hearses from navigating the dirt roads and the frozen ground made burials difficult.
This particular vault is important because it served a significant public service in the winter of 1917-18, when an influenza outbreak killed hundreds and caused Atlanta to close down. Many of the deceased were taken to the vault in Westview, giving Atlanta a repository for the many dead as the city reeled from the outbreak.
That vault was permanently sealed in 1945 and now serves as a historical reminder of cemetery’s role in one of the great tragedies that struck our city.
Such is the story of Westview, a cemetery that is the final resting place of many Northside families but its place in history is often forgotten.
Oakland Cemetery on Memorial Drive is the standard bearer of historic cemeteries in Atlanta. Oakland is the final resting place of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Margaret Mitchell and world champion golfer Bobby Jones.
Westview has it’s own cadre of significant Atlantans, including Joel Chandler Harris, the author of the “Uncle Remus” tales; tennis giant Bitsy Grant; Coca-Cola Co. magnate Robert Woodruff and Atlanta’s favorite mayor, William B. Hartsfield.
Dating back to 1850, Oakland was the first public cemetery, but at 48 acres it has been at capacity for some time.
That is why a group of Atlanta businessmen led by E.P. McBurney, W.J. Garrett, T.J. Hightower and Joseph T. Orme founded Westview in 1884, purchasing 582 acres west of the then city limits. They wanted to create a landscaped park cemetery similar to Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. The Westview land was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Atlanta campaign during the Civil War, the Battle of Ezra Church.
The cemetery is home to arguably one of the most surprising and interesting structures in the city of Atlanta. While Oakland has its wonderful individual family mausoleums, Westview has a massive mausoleum and abbey that rivals anything in Europe. It features a stacked-rock facade and many elements that harken back to the Italian Renaissance, including intricate designs and marble sculptures. Magnificent stained glass windows ring a handsome chapel. The floor is highly polished marble and the mausoleum has room from more than 11,000.
In order to understand how such a grand structure came to be in West End, one has to follow Westview’s ownership to when Asa Candler Jr. purchased it in 1933 and began to make dramatic improvements and investments. He built a power plant on the cemetery grounds because he didn’t want to rely on the city for power. He built a hexagonal office building at the base of the cemetery’s water tower. The stacked-rock building had an ornate door in the same style as the mausoleum but no windows. The building was demolished in 1973.
The cemetery is now a nonprofit operated by the Bowen family, Charles Sr. and Charles Jr. At the heart of the operation is Margaret Powers, who has worked at the cemetery since 1945. She carries with her a strong affection for Westview and the knowledge of all that has come and gone over the last half century. The records the cemetery keeps are remarkable.
Dating all the way back to its founding, a beautifully hand-written ledger has the name of every person interred and their cause of death in massive bound volumes. It is said the main gate, which once housed the cemetery’s offices, is among the oldest structures in Atlanta.
The task of guarding this legacy has now fallen to the Bowen family and Powers, who must balance the day-to-day operations with the securing Westview’s place in Atlanta’s history.
Thornton Kennedy is a fifth-generation Buckhead resident and can be reached at email@example.com.