On heels of restoration, city shapes future of historic cemetery

Austin
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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The oldest burial ground in Austin, founded around the same time as the city itself, will be more accessible to the public following a million-dollar restoration of a chapel on the property.

Oakwood Cemetery, a tract of land just south of East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and just east of Interstate 35, was first established in the late 1830s and contains family names Austinites will recognize: Zilker, Pease, Bergstrom, Mueller and many others.

Now the city’s Parks and Recreation Department wants public input on how to use the area and the chapel to preserve its past and move it into the future.

An online survey to provide feedback went live this week. The city will collect input there until mid-April when it will host an in-person meeting to hear from people.

The department plans to offer tours of the site, plus themed tours exploring the cemetery’s statesmen, veterans, influential women, and others.

“Where we go from there is really up to the public and what the public tells us,” said Laura Esparza, director of PARD’s division of museums and cultural programs.

Oakwood has long been a public space. From city leaders to architects to laborers, the burial ground provided a final resting place for the people who built Austin. The chapel, built in 1914, will provide a window into the history of the city and cemetery.

“There’s a lot of Austin’s past to remember here,” Esparza said.

Jennifer Chenoweth, the museum site coordinator at the Oakwood chapel, hopes the revamped space will give visitors access to understanding.

“Cemeteries are evidence of change,” she said. “And Austin itself is really struggling with its growth and its change.”

Chenoweth first encountered Oakwood as a graduate art student at the University of Texas at Austin. She went on to write her fine arts master’s thesis about it, focusing on the form, structures and sculpture represented there. 

“When I was visiting the cemetery,” she said, “the chapel was boarded up.”

The restoration marks the start of Oakwood’s future, but the work to refurbish it brought up some uncomfortable truths about the city’s past. The price tag is about $2 million from bond funding and around $475,000 for fence/gate restoration/upgrades from hotel occupancy taxes. 

In late 2016, in the middle of restoring the chapel, crews discovered bone fragments underneath the floorboards. The original builders covered up some 20 unmarked graves in a racially-segregated part of the cemetery.

Work stopped and the city sent the bones to Texas State University researchers. Once they were sure the remains were removed, restoration continued, wrapping up in the summer last year. Esparza said the city is still waiting to hear what the researchers have found concerning the gender or any other identifying information about the remains.

And there’s still work to do on the bluebonnet-covered grounds. Some headstones and monuments sit broken or toppled. But Chenoweth hopes the restoration project and future programming at the cemetery provides an entryway into the story of Austin and the characters who built it.

“So many people move here and want to be a part of that story,” she said, “but there’s not an easy way into the history.”

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