Bonaventure Cemetery boasts a wealth of visual art that makes it feel more like a sculpture garden than a graveyard. Talented artists from Savannah, the Northeast, and Europe created Bonaventure’s sculptures, carved headstones, obelisks, and architectural mausoleums for those with the means to create lavish memorials to the dead. Some of the city’s wealthy families commissioned monuments by Northeastern makers. Struthers and Sons, one of Philadelphia’s most successful marble companies for three generations, was a favored source for Savannah’s elite, creating some of Bonaventure’s most photographed early tombs including monuments for the Telfair family, the Jones family, and Edward Padelford.
A large number of the Bonaventure’s monument makers were locally based. Robert D. Walker opened his Marble and Stone works in Savannah in 1840 and remained in business until the end of the 19th century. Many of Walker’s works can be seen in Savannah’s Laurel Grove, Catholic, and Bonaventure Cemeteries. Beginning in the 1850s, Walker’s stone yard was located on the block of York Street currently occupied by the Jepson Center. In 1900, Walker sold out to another stone yard owner, Irish-born Patrick Hagan, whose work is also found at Bonaventure. The current York Street address of the Jepson Center was later home to the Dixie Stone Company which produced funerary monuments just after the turn of the century.
York Street was home to more than one stone yard in the late 19th century. The sons of an Irish immigrant, brothers William and Henry Roche, formed the Savannah Monument and Tile Company, which also operated on York Street in the late 19th century. In addition to producing monuments for local cemeteries, the Roche bothers worked on the ornate United States Post Office and Courthouse on Wright Square, and William Roche is said to have carved the Shotter estate’s large marble fountain, which remains a focal point at the Greenwich addition to Bonaventure today.
The artist most synonymous with Bonaventure’s monuments is John Walz. Born in Wurtemberg, Germany, Walz lived in Philadelphia with his sister as a youth after his parents’ death. He trained in Paris and in the Vienna workshop of Victor Tilgner, where a commission from the Director of the Telfair Academy brought him to Savannah in 1885 to oversee the installation of five sculptures in front of the new museum (pictured below, left). During his time in Savannah, Walz also created a sculpture of that same Telfair Director, Carl Brandt (pictured below, right).
Walz established himself as Savannah’s preeminent sculptor of monuments from the 1890s until his death in 1922. More than 70 works by Walz have been identified in Bonaventure alone, with numerous others found throughout Laurel Grove, Catholic Cemetery, and others in the region. His work ranges from monograms on stone copings to life-size, naturalistically carved human figures and architectural sculpture. In 1894, Walz completed Bonaventure’s beloved sculpture of 6-year-old Gracie Watson (below), which is still avidly sought out by visitors. Ironically, Walz, who was buried in his wife’s plot in Bonaventure, did not have his own headstone until one was commissioned by the Bonaventure Historical Society. Bonaventure today features a Walz Garden and a street named Walz Way in honor of his artistry.
Monument Makers of Today
Oglethorpe Marble and Granite Company, Savannah’s longest operating marble yard and monument company, was established in 1907 by G.B. Little, Sr., who moved to Savannah from Charleston in 1898. Little bought out several other stone companies by 1912 and furnished monuments for many of the city’s cemeteries, including Bonaventure. His son, Milton J. Little, trained early as a stonecutter and completed his first monument at the age of 11. He continued the business after G.B.’s death, producing countless markers for cemeteries throughout Savannah as well as other public works such as the 1947 Marine Monument in Forsyth Park.
Milton’s daughter Virginia and son-in-law Dan Mobley represent the third generation to manage Oglethorpe Marble and Granite Company, which still produces monuments for Savannah’s cemeteries today, in the same location on East Broad Street where it has operated since 1927.