Oak Hill Cemetery faces uphill battle for consideration on National Register of Historic Places

David Floyd • Updated Jul 22, 2016 at 7:12 PM

You don’t have to walk far in Oak Hill Cemetery to find an example of local history.

Since its establishment in the late 1800s, 14 Union and 68 Confederate veterans have been buried there.

So have seven soldiers who died during World War I and four who died in World War II. Johnson City founder Henry Johnson and Col. LeRoy Reeves, the designer of the current Tennessee flag, are also interred in the cemetery, along with other notable local inhabitants.

But members of the State Historical Commission don’t believe that’s enough to make the cemetery eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, a notion the cemetery’s owner, Timothy McKinney, takes issue with.

“People want to know, ‘Why is it not on the historic registry?’” McKinney said. “And it ought to be. This thing was established in 1870, so it ought to be on the register. I’ve got a lot of history here.”

Despite McKinney’s efforts, the property has faced problems in recent years. The retaining walls are crumbling, the chain-link fence surrounding the property is rusting, and lately, the cemetery has had difficulty reaching its minimum fundraising goals.

However, some of these problems could be solved if the property is incorporated into Johnson City’s downtown historic district.

"Once you’re in a historic district there’s numerous grants you can get from state, federal and local levels,” said Matthew Young, a planner with the Johnson City Planning Division. “I think really getting (the cemetery) into the historic district is the first step to get him some grants, maybe to possibly help with the renovation and or maintenance of the facility.”

The historic zoning commission will make a decision during a meeting on July 26, and if they approve the change, the matter will be considered by the Johnson City Planning Commission, then the City Commission.

Right now, McKinney hopes that being placed in the downtown historic district will be enough to obtain funding for a new fence, but he still has his eyes set on the National Register of Historic Places.

Being placed on the register would make the property eligible for certain tax provisions and qualify the cemetery for additional federal grants dedicated to historic preservation. If recent events are any indication, however, this might be a somewhat difficult feat to accomplish.

Tom Manning is the chairman of Family and Friends of Oak Hill Cemetery, which acts as the fundraising arm of the cemetery. Manning submitted an information packet to the Tennessee Historical Commission in 2014 to see whether the property would qualify for addition to the registry.

In a letter responding to the inquiry, Caroline Eller, an historic preservation specialist with the Tennessee Historical Commission, said cemeteries are difficult to add to the register, but they can be added if they have “outstanding monuments in them, are part of an historic district or if they are of extraordinary significance.”

“While (Oak Hill) cemetery contains the graves of persons significant in the history and development of Johnson City and the northeast region of Tennessee,” Eller said in the letter, “burial places are not typically recognized as the most important or only reminder of an important person and are likewise not usually eligible. Buildings or sites that are associated with the significant person’s productive life are usually recognized for their historical significance rather than the burial site.”

Eller also said burial places nominated to the National Register must be associated with a person or group of “outstanding” importance.

“The design of the cemetery is also very important,” Eller said, “and cemeteries with funerary art such as tombs, sculptures or markers that possess high artistic and architectural significance can be recognized for this. Oak Hill Cemetery does not meet this criterion, and there are modern markers throughout. There are also modern buildings on the property and non-historic fencing that detract from the overall integrity of the site.”

The National Parks Service ultimately decides whether a property will appear on the register, and during the process, officials at state and national levels have several criteria that they consider before making a decision. These include the age of the site, how well its preserved and its historical significance.

Before they send another inquiry, McKinney and the Family and Friends of Oak Hill Cemetery are waiting to see what happens at the local level. If the cemetery is accepted into the downtown historic district — and if McKinney and Manning manage to find solutions to some of the criticisms conveyed by the Tennessee Historical Commission — they’ll give the National Register another go.

“Why would they turn something like this down and not consider this historical?” McKinney said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

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