In 1863 prominent citizens of Oakland established a rural cemetery north of the city and hired Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., to create the layout for an arid, windswept 209-acre hillside site. This would be Olmsted’s first design in California and his only cemetery.
Olmsted, with the assistance of surveyor and engineer Edward Miller, created an initial plan in 1864 with further refinement over the next two years. Olmsted carefully selected a drought-resistant planting scheme that opened to extensive views and screened the site from heavy winds. Seeking to create a harmonious plant palette, Olmsted selected dark-foliaged evergreens, including columnar Italian cypress complemented by the horizontal canopies of Italian stone pine, Monterey cypress, cedar of Lebanon and live oaks. Finding that cemeteries by their nature cannot fully be Picturesque, Olmsted ran a formal, tree-lined avenue on a flat plane that bisected the otherwise hilly site. Connecting to the avenue at a series of roundabouts ornamented by fountains, serpentine pathways trace natural contours, curving uphill to reveal panoramic views of the Bay Area.
The cemetery has since been expanded to 226 acres, with additions not found in Olmsted’s original plan, including a Gothic Revival chapel and mausolea, three small reservoirs, and a greater variety of tree species. Other features such as twin avenues that radiated out from the entrance were never constructed. In the 1940s the Olmsted Brothers firm along with landscape architect Prentiss French proposed a road layout, grading plan, and a drainage scheme uphill from previously developed plots. Rehabilitation efforts in 2006 by the SWA Group included a new entry and improvements to fountains and plantings. In 2017, 6,300 new burial sites were approved within undeveloped portions of the site. New work was predicated on the sensitive treatment of Olmsted’s design and preserving the cemetery’s live oaks.