Did you know that New York’s Central Park, an historic landmark, was designed based on the lay of the land of a cemetery? The Green-Wood Cemetery was founded in 1838 as a rural cemetery in Brooklyn, NY. It was granted National Historic Landmark status in 2006 by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Located in Greenwood Heights, it lies several blocks southwest of Prospect Park, between Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Borough Park, Kensington, and Sunset Park. Paul Goldberger in The New York Times, wrote that it was said “it is the ambition of the New Yorker to live upon the Fifth Avenue, to take his airings in the Park, and to sleep with his fathers in Green-Wood.
Inspired by Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where a cemetery in a naturalistic park-like landscape in the English manner was first established, Green-Wood was able to take advantage of the varied topography provided by glacial moraines. Battle Hill, the highest point in Brooklyn and built in 1838, is on cemetery grounds, rising approximately 200 feet above sea level. As such, there on that spot in 1920, was erected a Revolutionary War monument by Frederick Ruckstull, Altar to Liberty: Minerva. From this height, the bronze Minerva statue gazes towards The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
The cemetery was the idea of Henry Evelyn Pierrepont, a Brooklyn social leader. It was a popular tourist attraction in the 1850s and was the place most famous New Yorkers who died during the second half of the nineteenth century were buried. It is still an operating cemetery with approximately 600,000 graves spread out over 478 acres (1.9 km²). The rolling hills and dales, several ponds and an on-site chapel provide an environment that still draws visitors.
There are several famous monuments located there, including a statue of DeWitt Clinton and a Civil War Memorial. During the Civil War, Green-Wood Cemetery created the “Soldiers’ Lot” for free veterans’
The gates were designed by Richard Upjohn in Gothic Revival style. The main entrance to the cemetery was built in 1861 of Belleville brownstone. The sculptured groups depicting biblical scenes from the New Testament are the work of John M. Moffitt. A Designated Landmarks of New York plaque was erected on it in 1958 by the New York Community Trust.
Several wooden shelters were also built, including one in a Gothic Revival style,
and another resembling a Swiss chalet. A descendent colony of monk parakeets that are believed to have escaped their containers while in transit now nests in the spires of the Gothic Revival gate, as well as other areas in Brooklyn.
Green-Wood has remained non-sectarian, but was generally considered a Christian burial place for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of good repute. One early regulation was that no one executed for a crime, or even dying in jail, could be buried there. Although he died in the Ludlow Street Jail, the family of the infamous “Boss” Tweed managed to circumvent this rule.
The cemetery was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006. In 1999, The Green-Wood Historic Fund, a not-for-profit institution, was created to continue preservation, beautification, educational programs and community outreach as the current “working cemetery” evolves into a Brooklyn cultural institution.
Cemeteries are architectural landscape wonders. I took my interior design students to Green-Wood Cemetery to sketch the mausoleums. Some structures looked like cottages, some looked like palaces. I remember this one, fashioned after an Egyptian pyramid. I have sketched and painted cemetery landscapes. How about you, what do cemeteries mean to you? Do you like cemeteries?