A Grave Matter - Part 2
In my last blog I wrote about the cemeteries of Trinity Church, which are the oldest and most renowned in Manhattan. Although there are many large cemeteries throughout New York City, I am only going to concentrate on Manhattan, the most densely populated of the five boroughs and probably the least likely place one would think of when looking for cemeteries. It may be surprising to know that there were scores of grave yards, burial grounds and cemeteries throughout Manhattan. Due to population growth and development, many were removed and their inhabitants reinterred to larger graveyards throughout the outer boroughs. However, tucked away in odd corners of the city, several still exist if you know where to look…and some are also hidden in plain sight.
African Burial Ground
Discovered during the excavation for the foundations of the Ted Weiss Federal Office Building at 290 Broadway in 1991, the African Burial Ground originally dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries. A total of 419 sets of skeletal human remains of men, women and children were discovered in a small one acre section of what was originally a 6.6 acre tract of land outside the bounds of New Amsterdam. The burial ground was mostly situated in a depression in the landscape, which probably contributed to its being landfilled and eventually built upon in the 1800’s. Upon discovery of the burial ground and considerable community, political and academic pressure, the GSA had the site archaeologically excavated. In 1992 congress passed a law signed by George H.W. Bush to redesign the building to accommodate a small open lot for a memorial. The site was declared a National Historical Landmark administered by the National Parks Service. A visitor center was opened in 2010 within the adjacent Federal Building.
The First, Second and Third Cemeteries of Congregation Shearith Israel
Congregeation Shearith Israel was founded by Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic Jewish immigrants in 1654 and is the oldest Jewish congregation in the U.S. The first (Chatham Square) cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel is located on a small plot of land at the foot of the Bowery and St. James Place…blink and you most likely will miss it. This is the second oldest extant cemetery in Manhattan after Trinity Wall Street. What once was a much larger cemetery located on the outskirts of the British-Dutch Settlement was reduced by erosion and subsequent extension of the Bowery and St. James Place through eminent domain. Burials ceased after the city’s 1823 public health ordinance banning burials south of Canal Street. The congregation then opened a second graveyard at 11th Street and 6th Avenue. This too was reduced in size to a small triangular lot due to the extension of West 11th Street. The third cemetery of Shearith Israel was consecrated in 1829 and is located on 21st Street off of 6th Avenue.
St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral
Most New Yorkers know of St Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue across from Rockefeller Center. There is also an Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott Street and Prince Street, which unlike its uptown counterpart has a cemetery - the only Catholic cemetery in Manhattan. Situated well north of the established city in 1815, Old St. Patrick’s was located amongst the rolling farmland and country houses in central Manhattan. The cemetery is surrounded by a leaning brick wall that was designated a NYC landmark in 1968. Underneath the church lies Manhattan’s only catacombs, still accepting internments on a limited basis. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI elevated the church to the status of Basilica in recognition of its historic past.
St. Mark’s in the Bowery
“Bowery” is the English spelling of bouwerij, the Dutch word for farm. In the 17th century, Peter Stuyvesant, the last director general of New Netherland purchased land from the Dutch East-India Company for his home and farm. A small Dutch Reform chapel was built on the property by the Stuyvesant family. In 1793 Stuyvesant’s great grandson donated the chapel to the Episcopal Church which built what is now the second oldest church in Manhattan and the oldest site of continuous worship in the city. The church yard which contains burial vaults, is the final resting place of many notable figures…some of which you may recognize by the streets and parks named after them; Thompkins, Schermerhorn, Beekman and of course Stuyvesant, who is interred in the family vault beneath the church. The church also at one time maintained a cemetery just east of 2nd Avenue between 11th and 12th Street. The remains from this cemetery were removed to Evergreen cemetery in Brooklyn in 1864. Buildings were eventually built on that site. The church faces Stuyvesant Street, which runs diagonal to the Manhattan street grid and was the original road leading up to the Stuyvesant homestead.
New York Marble Cemetery
Situated at an interior block bounded by East 2nd & East 3rd Street in the East Village, you will not find any headstones or grave markers in this cemetery. Approximately 2,000 burials are located in 156 subterranean vaults made of white Tuckahoe marble. Fear of yellow fever outbreaks being caused by shallow burials led to the solution of burial vaults located 10 feet below ground. Incorporated in 1831, this was New York’s first non-sectarian cemetery. Entrance is gained through a gate and down an alley located between buildings off of 2nd Avenue.
New York City Marble Cemetery
The popularity of burial vaults lead to the establishment of another Marble Cemetery in 1831 on 2nd Street between 1st & 2nd Avenues. Similar to the New York Marble Cemetery, this is the city's second non-sectarian cemetery and has 256 Marble vaults. Unlike the first Marble Cemetery, the grounds are visible through a wrought iron fence on 2nd Street. James Monroe, the 5th U.S. president was buried here in 1831, until the Virginia legislature passed a resolution to have the ex-presidents remains returned to Virginia in 1858. Both New York Marble Cemetery and New York City Marble Cemetery are designated landmarks.
Washington Square Park
Many New York City Parks started out as burial grounds, potters fields and cemeteries. Union Square Park, Madison Square Park and Washington Square Park were all at one time burial grounds. Washigton Square in particular was recognizable as a former potter’s field. When the city purchased the land after the Revolutionary War in 1797, they used the site for the burial of the poor and indigent as well as victims of yellow fever.After 20 years of burials the potter’s field was at capacity. The city then decided to designate the land as a parade ground due to the encroaching residential development. The land was levelled and landscaped. In November 2015, contractors working for the Department of Design & Construction were installing a water main when they discovered two burial vaults containing coffins and skeletal remains. The vaults are believed to have belonged to the Cedar Street and Pearl Street Presbyterian Churches in Lower Manhattan. At the time the vaults would have been outside of the developed area of the city.
Smack dab at the intersection Broadway and Fifth Avenue at 25th Street, a Granite Obelisk rises 51’ high honoring General William Jenkins Worth. However, this is not just a memorial; it is in fact General Worth’s final resting place. Worth was born in Hudson New York, to Quaker parents. At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Worth enlisted in the army where he served with under General Winfield Scott. After the war he served as the fourth commandant of West Point. After several other military engagements the 11th president, James Polk appointed him Brigadier-general. Worth fought in the Mexican-American war (1846-1848) and was promoted to the highest rank of major-general. He died of cholera in Texas in 1849. Ft. Worth Texas, Lake Worth Florida, and Worth Street in Manhattan are all named in his honor. Worth was buried at the monument with full military honors on November 25, 1857. The campaigns that Worth participated in are carved on each side of the obelisk, and a wrought iron fence modeled after parade swords surrounds the memorial.
Grant’s Tomb (General Grant National Memorial)
The final resting place of the 18th President and his wife is the largest mausoleum in North America. The tomb is located in Riverside Park and 122nd Street. Grant, a West Point Graduate served as a quartermaster under Zachary Taylor (12th president) and later under Winfield Scott in the Mexican-American war. He retired from the army in 1854, but struggled in civilian life. When the civil war began in 1861 he reentered the service commanding union forces in several pivotal battles. After several engagements, President Lincoln promoted him to commanding General of the Union Armies, which he led to victory over the confederate States. Grant famously accepted the surrender of confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. In 1869 Grant became the youngest president to date at 49 years old. He served two terms and left the White House to become a partner in a financial firm in New York. After his partner embezzled investors money, the firm went bankrupt in 1884. That same year Grant learned that he had throat cancer. Grant set to writing his memoirs with his friend Mark Twain. His memoirs were published just before his death in 1885. A design competition was held for the design of the tomb, which was won by John Duncan who also designed the Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza Memorial Arch. After some fits and starts the mausoleum was completed in 1897.
Amiable Child Memorial
Located within site but in stark contrast to the grandeur of Grant’s tomb, lies what is surely one of the smallest and least known memorials and one of the few private graves on public land. The tomb commemorates the death of a child who in 1797 fell from the cliffs of what is now Riverside Park but was then property owned by Charles Pollack, the boy’s father. The tomb remained after several successive owners of the property. The tomb came into possession of the city, after the land was acquired through eminent domain.
The Old Nagle Cemetery
In upper Manhattan between 212th Street and 213th Street near the Harlem River sat the Nagle cemetery on property purchased by Jan Nagle in 1736. The cemetery was the family burying ground for the Nagle, Dyckman, Vermyles, Ryers and Hadley families. The cemetery also held many revolutionary war soldiers and was said to have over 2,000 graves. The rapidly growing city eventually overtook the farms and homesteads of the early Dutch settlers. The graveyard fell into disrepair and in the early 20th Century some remains were removed. By 1926, the balance of the remains were reinterred in Woodlawn cemetery in the Bronx. The Department of Transportation subsequently built rail yards on the site.
As the inexorable march of development engulfed the city, even the dead were not spared from the relentless pressures of development. In Manhattan, “Rest in Peace” is more of a suggestion than a given. When land is at a premium, as we have learned from the past, nothing is sacrosanct. As cemeteries in the outer boroughs fill to capacity, the city faces some of the same challenges as Manhattan faced in the past.