SAVANNAH, Ga. — Plans to build a 500-vault mausoleum near the gated entrance to Savannah’s famous Bonaventure Cemetery have drawn opposition from neighbors and preservationists who say the large tomb would be an eyesore in a place known for the beauty of its gnarled oaks and elaborate graveside statuary.
Perhaps best known for its role in the book Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil – the “Bird Girl” statue on the cover was photographed there – Bonaventure is a municipal cemetery that draws 410,000 tourists a year.
There’s also a privately owned graveyard, Forest Lawn Cemetery, next door. Late last year, the city approved its owner’s plans to build a 35-foot-tall mausoleum with 3,500 square feet of space not far from Bonaventure’s entrance.
Residents who fear the addition will ruin Bonaventure’s ambience are scrambling to take action. The Savannah Morning News reports that more than 600 people have signed a petition opposing the plans.
“Tourists don’t come here to see a mausoleum,” said Carol Moore, a historic preservationist who lives in nearby Avondale. “They come here to see the beautiful trees.”
Critics of the mausoleum are trying to reach a compromise with Forest Lawn owner Larry Nikola, who says he needs the indoor crypts to bring revenue to his cemetery and boost the trust fund that pays for its upkeep.
“We’ll use the interest on that money in perpetuity to maintain the cemetery,” Nikola said.
Both sides will need cooperation from local officials.
The proposed compromise would involve Savannah agreeing to swap an acre of city-owned property along the cemetery’s interior with the land where Nikola wants to put his mausoleum.
It’s unsure whether city officials will agree. Savannah Park and Tree Director Jerry Fleming said the city isn’t likely to swap Nikola’s property for an acre of municipal cemetery space because that would reduce the number of affordable, city-owned grave plots available to Savannah residents.
While Chatham County buys land for green space, normally it’s for parcels larger than an acre.
Tom Bordeaux, a former state lawmaker elected last November to the city council, said protecting Bonaventure should be a priority.
“Bonaventure is not just a place to bury people,” he said. “It’s a place that people who come to visit Savannah want to see. We have to look at the bigger picture.”