Eight That Can’t Wait 2019: Oakwood Cemetery Entrance Area

City of Syracuse, Individual National Register and Local Listing

Challenges: Vandalism, Deterioration, Lack of Viable Use, Lack of Access

The completion of Interstate 81 through Syracuse in the early 1960s is part of well-documented transformation of the city through urban renewal. Less well known is the highway’s impact on Oakwood Cemetery (1859), one of Central New York’s most significant historic landscapes. Just south of the raised viaduct, the highway was built on a raised embankment directly outside the cemetery’s main gates, which closed off the cemetery to the city and led to decades of decline in the entrance area that included the chapel and administration building. PACNY listed this landscape on the 2018 Eight That Can’t Wait and is carrying it over to the 2019 list because of new developments associated with the I-81 project and continued deterioration of the Administration Building.

The abandoned entrance drive into Oakwood, looking west toward the gate and NYSW Railroad embankment, 2017. I-81 blocks entry from the west. (PACNY)

In April 2019, the New York State Department of Transportation announced that its preferred option for the I-81 Viaduct Project is the Community Grid Alternative. This presents the opportunity of replacing the elevated embankment in front of the Oakwood gate with a non-limited-access ground-level boulevard. This could restore the historic access to the cemetery and thereby increase use and visibility of the cemetery entrance area, which would be directly accessible from the main route into Syracuse. This in turn could make more feasible the rehabilitation of the chapel and administration building. The deteriorated cemetery road system could also be tied into a trail system connected to downtown Syracuse, providing city residents with renewed connections to greenspace. All of these improvements could be aided by mitigation and enhancement funding through the I-81 project. PACNY is working with the Preservation League of New York State and the New York State Historic Preservation Office to address the needs of Oakwood Cemetery in the I-81 project. Support of the cemetery’s private board and Historic Oakwood Cemetery Association is needed to realize this vision.

The Oakwood entrance gate, which also carries the NYSW Railroad, showing the elevated embankment of I-81 directly in front. (PACNY)

The cemetery and I-81 have garnered the interest of SUNY ESF landscape architecture students. Below are two rendering showing visions for the reopened gates and entrance area in the I-81 Community Grid Alternative.

Rendering of design for a crosswalk across the replacement I-81 boulevard to the reopened Oakwood Cemetery gate. (Sabrina Hegebarth-Juedes, SUNY ESF)
Birds-eye view vision for the entrance area with a reopened entrance gate. (Sabrina Hegenbarth-Juedes, SUNY ESF)

History and Existing Conditions

Opened in 1859, Oakwood Cemetery is a product of the 19th-century Rural Cemetery Movement that fostered some of the earliest works of landscape architecture in the United States. Oakwood was designed by landscape gardener Howard Daniels, best known for Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park. The cemetery is listed in the National Register of Historic Places at the national level of significance, and it has received a Medallion designation from the American Society of Landscape Architects as one of 362 most important historic landscapes in the United States.

The vacant and vandalized office building, looking south, 2018. Large holes in the valleys and rear of the roof are allowing water to stream into the building. The cemetery owners are planning to demolish the building. (Bruce Harvey)

After I-81 blocked the original entrance to Oakwood Cemetery in the early 1960s, the cemetery owners moved their operations to the other side of the cemetery along Comstock Avenue. The original entrance area has since remained a hidden back corner, where once it was the celebrated arrival point and link to the city. Without activity and use, deterioration and vandalism have become rampant. Thanks to the Historic Oakwood Preservation Association, the chapel has been stabilized, but the office building, entrance gates, and road system are faring much worse. Many of the landscape plantings, a conservatory, and portions of the entrance road have disappeared. Without viable uses and income to support repairs, the original entrance area will continue to deteriorate.

Entrance to Oakwood Cemetery, from present site of I-81, photographed 1909 (Onondaga Historical Association).
Aerial photo looking east across Oakwood Cemetery showing the original entrance area prior to the construction of I-81, ca. 1960. The red lines indicate the current approximate location of the I-81 embankment. (SUNY ESF)

Sources: Karen Day, “Cultural Landscape Report for Oakwood Cemetery;” SUNY ESF Department of Landscape Architecture; NYS DOT, I-81 Viaduct website.

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