Preservation Buffalo Niagara is recognizing outstanding preservation projects and those contributing to regional preservation efforts at its annual awards ceremony May 31, 11:30 AM at Kleinhans Music Hall. Buffalo Rising has been profiling this year’s winners leading up to the May event.
The Oakwood Cemetery Association in Niagara Falls has engaged in best practices for the preservation of iconic buildings, grave markers and the landscape design. The association has converted an often ignored space into a living and active museum. Regular programming focuses on educating the public in a manner that cultivates an appreciation of architectural treasures and an important past.
Prior to 2009, the cemetery on Portage Road near Pine Avenue was on the brink of insolvency; mismanagement and deferred maintenance put this unique cultural treasure in peril. With the Oakwood Cemetery Association, a group of dedicated volunteers turned the tide and transformed what could have been another frustrating causality of economic decline into a radiant symbol of pride and hope.
Located in the heart of Niagara Falls, Oakwood Cemetery is a hidden treasure which is a vital connection to some of the region’s most notable residents. The final resting place for close to 20,000 people on 18 acres, this cemetery is home to significant architectural features including unique headstones, iconic buildings, and a Green & Wicks designed mausoleum which houses an original Tiffany window.
Despite its contemporary urban setting, the cemetery is a classic example of the rural cemetery movement that began in the 1830s. Oakwood Cemetery was designed in 1852 by noted railroad designer and Niagara Falls civil engineer Theodore Dehone Judah; the cemetery has not deviated from its original layout with mature trees and shrubbery.
Following periods of rapid growth between 1910 and the 1930s, the once rural setting was transformed in an urban setting. Currently, the surrounding neighborhood is a mix of stable, well kept homes and declining, poorly cared for structures.
The period from 1990-2005, was a very difficult period for the cemetery. Reflective of economic disinvestment in the city, Oakwood began to deteriorate. Buildings began to fall into disrepair. The cemetery board rarely met and the grounds were shabby. Conditions became so dire that the New York State Department of State, Division of Cemeteries warned that insolvency was imminent.
In 2009, a group of dedicated individuals began a reorganization of the cemetery association. The new board was determined to not only resurrect the physical grounds to its past grandeur but also to introduce programming that promoted the cemetery as an outdoor museum. In a short period, the new board injected not just new energy but a sense of hope in a city that has had its heart broken one too many times.
The Oakwood Cemetery has breathed new life in an area of Niagara Falls that is often overlooked and even unknown. Oakwood has embraced the proud history of Niagara Falls through reenactments of lives of abolitionist and Civil War heroes. “Ghost tours” have been organized to showcase some of the eccentric daredevils buried in Oakwood. The association has actively recruited the youth of the community to assist in the preservation and promotion of the cemetery. The Young Archeologists of Niagara Wheatfield School District, the Girls Scouts, and the Boys Scouts have been vigorously involved in the restoration of grave markers and the preservation of landscape features.
The association is currently in the process of digitalizing burial records and not long ago became the archival home of the Niagara County Odd Fellow Records. Of late, the cemetery has completed a landscape survey/inventory, developed a five year master plan, and was listed as a local landmark. Now, they have begun the process for listing with the State and National Registers of historic places.
The preservation community in Niagara Falls, especially the Historic Preservation Commission, is proud of what the Oakwood Cemetery Association has accomplished and is striving to do. The Oakwood Cemetery Association proves that in spite of limited funds, hard work and dedication can make a difference.
Photos by James Bragg