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Preservationists worry about future of historic Oaklawn Cemetery

Few contributed more to early Tampa than John P. Wall.

He served as mayor. He helped plan Ybor City as well as the railroad that connected Tampa to the rest of Florida.

"He's the type of man we need to honor," local historic preservationist Maureen Patrick said with dismay in her voice.

Her alarm stemmed from what lay before her at the Oaklawn Cemetery plot where Wall was buried in 1895. His footstone, torn from the ground, rested loosely against a nearby tree.

The act of vandalism occurred almost a year ago, Patrick said, and has not yet been corrected.

Patrick describes the Wall plot as a microcosm of the condition of Oaklawn Cemetery.

The cemetery on the northern edge of downtown is a historic jewel, Tampa's first public burial ground.

But some don't believe the city Parks and Recreation Department that oversees it, the families with descendants buried there, or civic leaders who could provide volunteer assistance do enough preserve Oaklawn.

"It's an institutional culture of disregard," Patrick said.

A pile of grave markers ripped from plots by vandals are piled in one area of the cemetery.

Other markers in their original spot have been damaged by vandals, are covered in algae, soot or both, or the names labeling the dead have been erased by weather and time.

Rotted wood that fell from its overhang ceiling litters the porch of the Sexton House that was once used by the cemetery caretakers to store their equipment.

"It's sad that Oaklawn has fallen by the wayside," said Shelby Bender, author of Tampa's Historic Cemeteries.

"Historic cemeteries are an important thread in the tapestry of our cultural assets."

Among Oaklawn's more than 1,000 deceased residents are Confederate soldiers, pirates, yellow fever victims, slaves and city forefathers, including 13 early mayors.

The city acknowledges the importance of Oaklawn, designating it as one of 48 historic landmarks in Tampa. It was established in 1850..

The Tampa Police Department recently increased its evening surveillance of the cemetery to deter vandalism, said Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick, whose district includes Oaklawn.

And there are ongoing discussions about further security.

"We are not ignoring the problem," Reddick said.

In May, the city spent about $1,000 patching the metal roof on Sexton House.

Still, that structure is in need of further repairs, as are many of the grave markers.

"We have a limited budget and a lot of resources to maintain," said Ocea Lattimore, Tampa's director of the Logistics and Asset Management Department.

"We had to prioritize our projects and this project did not rise to the top of the list."

There are state, federal and private grants earmarked for historic preservation, and Lattimore said the city will look into those.

But the application process takes considerable time and there is a lot of competition.

If money does become available, it will likely be used on the Sexton House, built in 1910.

The families who own plots are responsible for the grave stones, said Lisa Grizzle, a manager with parks and recreation.

Preservationist Patrick contends the city needs to make an exception for markers at a historic cemetery that dates back more than 160 years.

Some buried at Oaklawn no longer have relatives who live locally. For those that do, it may be an unfair financial burden to place on a family with no emotional ties to someone who died over a century ago.

Plus, as a local historic landmark, Oaklawn should be treated as a place for the public to honor the city's forefathers buried there. Those markers should not be allowed to deteriorate, she said.

Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center, is torn on that issue. He supports the city finding grants to repair the markers but also understands the position that private burial plots do not fall under their jurisdiction.

"Is it fair to say the city is in charge of parts of the cemetery they don't own?" he said. "That's a lot of markers to look after."

Still, added Powell, some of the damage — like the algae and soot — could be dealt with at a low cost.

"It's tragic that it has gotten to this state," said Del Acosta, the city's former historic preservation manager who now champions the cause as a civic leader. "It's a matter of priorities. Someone needs to take the initiative."

Oaklawn connects seamlessly to St. Louis Catholic Cemetery, founded in 1874 by St. Louis Church (now Sacred Heart).

That cemetery, maintained by the Diocese of St. Petersburg, is in better shape, preservationist Patrick pointed out. A brick shed that once held coffins was restored a few years ago.

Though the Catholic cemetery suffers its share of vandalism, civic organizations clean markers that look ignored.

For much of Oaklawn's existence, its upkeep was also provided and funded in part by civic organizations. The earliest was the Nickel Club, preservationist Patrick said, named for events held at Oaklawn such as concerts and lectures that charged a 5-cent admission.

The most recent was the Tampa Historical Society. Through membership dues and admission to graveyard tours, it repaired or replaced gravestones.

A little over a decade ago, city officials stopped responding to the group's requests to perform repairs or hold fundraisers at Oaklawn, said Patrick, a former president.

"The city is not equipped to take care of a historic cemetery on its own," she said. "But they ignored our desire to help."

Oaklawn's most dedicated volunteer caretaker was Julius Gordon, who walked the cemetery on a weekly basis, picking up trash and searching for headstones in need of repair. He also completed the first comprehensive genealogical study of the descendants of the cemetery.

"I don't know if anyone respected Oaklawn more than Julius," Patrick said.

Gordon was buried in Oaklawn in 2004.

Running her hands along her late friend's gravestone, Patrick became momentarily overcome with emotion.

"I'm sorry what's happened here, Julius," she said. "We could use you now."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

Preservationists worry about future of historic Oaklawn Cemetery 07/09/16 [Last modified: Saturday, July 9, 2016 10:18pm]
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