From its inception members were involved in helping to maintain the nearly 160 acres located adjacent to Syracuse University, in raising funds to repair damaged monuments, and in providing public tours of what is in actuality a wonderful outdoor museum.
HOCPA, working with the cemetery board of directors, has been a very active organization. HOCPA publishes a semi-annual newsletter describing their activities. We organize clean up days in the spring (called “Scour the Past”) when members and non-members volunteer time to undo the ravages of winter. In 1992 we began a series of guided tours, offered monthly from May through September. Oakwood Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991 through the monumental efforts of HOCPA.
The work of HOCPA has not gone unnoticed. In 1991 we received a Preservation Merit Award from the Preservation Association of Central New York and in 1999 we received The Centennial Medallion from the American Society of Landscape Architects in recognition of Oakwood’s significant and influential landscape.
Although the concept of a new rural cemetery began forming as early as 1852, the planning did not get under way until Syracuse Mayor Elias Warner Leavenworth became chair of the committee and enlisted other local businessmen in this endeavor.
Oakwood Cemetery was designed by the landscape gardener Howard Daniels and opened with the burial of Nellie G. Williamson on November 6, 1859, three days after official dedication ceremonies were held.
The first sexton was George Gardner, who lived in a cottage in the cemetery. His daughter, Lillian Oakwood Gardner, named for the cemetery, was the first birth there and succumbed to a heart issue ten months later (March 1864).
Joseph Lyman Silsbee designed the chapel and receiving vault which opened November 1880 and two years later James J. Belden gave a greenhouse, office building and arch under the railroad tracks at the cemetery entrance. The greenhouse was used until World War II, and the archway was closed permanently in 1964 when the state took some land to create Route 81.
Eight monuments are included on the Smithonian Preservation of Cultural Property list of 1993. This initiative is to preserve and celebrate America’s outdoor sculptures and is a joint project of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Heritage Preservation.