Hidden in the center of the city, a neo-classical dome peeks up from behind the businesses on Geary Avenue. Once the centerpiece of the 167-acre Odd Fellows Cemetery - over which much of this Richmond neighborhood was built - the Columbarium spent decades after its removal quietly falling into ruin, given over to the ravages of weather and city's raccoon population. Thanks to the Neptune Society and the one-man restoration crusade of caretaker Emmitt Watson, the building is one again a showpiece worthy of exploration.
Watson graciously met us on his birthday last Saturday for a closer look at this unusual house of the dead, and the stories behind its residents.
The Columbarium was once surrounded by a massive burial ground, removed during the city's epic expulsion of cemeteries in the 1930s.
"The first thing I saw was two raccoons... pigeons were sleeping in the empties." Inside the light-filled rotunda of the Conservatory Emmitt Watson shared his wealth of knowledge about the relocation of the cemeteries and the building's history from centerpice to crumbling dovecote and back.
The Conservatory is full of moving and personal tributes to lost loved ones, including many touching small things like these origami cranes.
This beastie perches in front of one of the building's many stained glass pieces, in this case placed atop a memorial inscibed with the reminder, "In the midst of life we are in death."
We were given a rare opportunity to enjoy the view and December sunlight on the roof of the Columbarium. Watson calls this area his private retreat, but now we know where to find him.
Back though the memento-mori secret door from the rooftop, for the rest of our explorations and birthday celebrations with a somewhat reluctant Watson..
DO IT YOURSELF
The Columbarium is open to the public Mon-Fri 8am-5pm, weekends 10am-3pm. We strongly recommend a vist to the Columbarium with Emmitt Watson, who is available for guided tours on weekdays. Call the staff at (415) 752-7891 for more information, and be sure to ask Watson to show you the Elvis head piggy banks.
In the meantime, you may also enjoy the terrific Virtual Tour here.
THANK YOU TO EVERYONE WHO JOINED US!
The Obscura Society is the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura We seek out secret histories, unusual access, and opportunities for our community to explore strange and overlooked places hidden all around us. Join us on our next adventure!
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