The Green-Wood Cemetery was the second most popular tourist site in the state with over 500,000 visitors each year by 1860 (Niagara Falls was the first). Located in Brooklyn near Prospect Park, the cemetery was founded in 1838 as one of the country’s first rural cemeteries. Since then, it has developed a reputation of being a most prestigious place to be buried with 560,000 “permanent residents,” many of them pretty famous. This landscape also helped inspire the creation of public parks in the city, including Central Park and Prospect Park. So, here are our top 10 secrets of a National Historic Landmark.
The catacombs of the Green-Wood Cemetery are opened only once a year to the public on a special day where the cemetery holds a guided tour of the mysterious underground. The catacombs were not intentionally constructed for the cemetery, rather, the area was previously actively mined for gravel. The pits that resulted from the work were converted into so-called “apartment buildings for burials.”
The catacombs consist of 30 vaults, usually owned by families. Interestingly enough, this kind of burial facility was used to avoid burying people alive. Since 2003, OHNY (Openhousenewyork) has enabled free-access to the city’s architectural gems, with the Green-Wood cemetery being one of them. So it was only until recently that the catacombs of this historic cemetery became opened to a select number of the public once a year.
Next, check out Catacombs Around the World: Paris, NYC, London, Rome
9. Memorial to the 1960 Park Slope Plane Crash
On December 16, 1960, Trans World Airlines Flight 266 and United Airlines Flight 826 collided over Staten Island, causing the TWA flight to crash there, while the United Airlines plane unsuccessfully attempted to reach LaGuardia Airport and instead crashed in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The Park Slope plane crash set fire to 10 brownstones at the intersection of Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue, along with three other stores, and a church (ironically named the Pillar of Fire Church).
84 people on the flight were killed, along with six people on the ground. The TWA crash on Staten Island killed 44 passengers and crew members. In an effort to figure out why the crash occurred, this investigation was the first to use a plane’s black box data recorder. Since DNA identification was not yet possible, the remains at the Park Slope crash were placed into three caskets labeled “Fragmentary Human Remains” and buried in unmark grave lot number 38325, purchased by United Airlines.
On December 16, 2010, on the 50th anniversary of this gruesome event, Green-Wood Cemetery dedicated a proper memorial for the victims who perished.
For a more detailed look into the crash, check out Remnants of a 1960 Park Slope Plane Crash Hidden in Plain Site in Brooklyn.
8. Famous Residents of Green-Wood Cemetery
Until 1848, Green-Wood Cemetery was the fourth most popular place to be buried in the United States, as it’s often been said “…one of every seven Americans can trace family roots back to Brooklyn.” Among the many immigrants and ordinary citizens interred here are members of prominent New York families like the Roosevelts, Pierreponts, Jeromes and Schermerhorns. There are also many famous residents. The list is fairly long (we’re talking a few tens and hundreds) so we’ll give you the names of just a few.
William Meager “Boss” Tweed, the infamous corrupt politician; Henry Chadwick, the “Father of Baseball”; founder and editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley; notable American composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein; artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; Frank Morgan Wupperman, the actor who played the wizard in The Wizard Of Oz; and Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph. Among these famous individuals also lie 5,000 Civil War soldiers, a large percentage of who were laid to rest in unmarked graves.
7. Time Capsule
In January 2013, while a construction worker was working on an expansion of the Crematory and Columbarium, he discovered small metal box buried in a wall. It turned out to be a time capsule from 1954 containing six, 19th-century published books on the Green-Wood Cemetery. Some titles include “A Handbook for Green-Wood”(1867) and “Green-Wood Illustrated” (1847), both written by Nehmiah Cleaveland, the cemetery’s first historian.
The books suffered severe water damage despite being wrapped in plastic, leaving the pages to turn into pulp. Retired Professor Anthony Cucchiara of Brooklyn College, an expert in dealing with water damaged artifacts, was involved in the restoration process, ordering the books to be frozen to prevent any further damage.
After freezing, the titles became visible, but the overall conditions were beyond salvaging. The good news is though, those same titles are not entirely out of print as copies are part of Green-Woods’ collection.
6. Escaped Monk Parrots Live There
Image from Brooklyn Parrots
Since the 1970s, Green-Wood Cemetery has had a group of interest (though quite possibly illegal) tenants, Argentinian Monk parrots (Myiopsitta monachus). Details behind how exactly the parrots got there are a bit fuzzy, but there are some interesting theories. The most popular version claims that in 1967, an unmarked crate made its way to JFK Airport where a curious worker opened it, letting free a small flock of monk parrots. A similar version of the story claims that the “curious airport employee” was actually an individual with ties to the mafia looking to profit on the crate’s contents.
While many exotic parrots have escaped into the city, the monk parrots seem to be the only ones able to survive the harsh winters. The birds made their way into residential areas, where they naturally started to annoy residents, who then naturally reported it to the authorities. Authorities not knowing what to do were told by the Argentinian government that killing them would be the easiest way to get rid of them.
Im 1973, a group of bird hunters hired by the US government chased the flock, killing only about half. The rest flew off to Rikers Island. The bird hunters chased them there but had to wait a day for permits to enter the premises. By the time they got there, the parrots had flown away, seeking refuge in Green-Wood Cemetery where they continue to live.
Steve Baldwin of Brooklyn Parrots hosts “safaris” bringing interested visitors to the cemetery to see and learn more about New York City’s colorful, and loud residents.
Still curious? Check out our other article to learn more about the Monk Parrots of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
5. Executed For A Crime? Died In Jail? Then You Can’t Be Buried Here
With the large number of people buried here, you wouldn’t think there would be certain criteria a dead person would have t meet in order to be allowed a grave here. But turns out there are. Although the cemetery was never affiliated with a specific church, it strives to remain non-sectarian. But it was generally seen as a Christian burial place for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of a higher social standing.
But one its main regulations is that nobody who was executed for a crime, or died while incarcerated was allowed to be buried here. Boss Tweed, who died at the Ludlow Street Prison, was able to get around this rule. Additionally, despite the cemetery’s leanings towards Protestants, there are many Irish-born people who helped build the city in the 19th century buried here.
4. Revolutionary War Historic Site
Statue to Minerva
In the days of the Revolutionary War, the area which Green-Wood Cemetery occupies was the site of a major battle in 1776: The Battle of Brooklyn, also known as the Battle of Long Island. The first major battle fought after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, this area was strategically important in defending New York.
After a successful attempt to drive the Continental Army out of Manhattan, the British forced the Patriots to retreat to Brooklyn Heights. On August 27, 1776, the British attacked American pickets defending the local Red Lion Inn, in an attempt to capture Brooklyn Heights, commencing the Battle of Brooklyn. However, not to be defeated or slaughtered on the battlefield, Brigadier General Williams Alexander Sterling and the Delaware Regiment made a fighting retreat, and against all odds made it safely across the Gowanus Creek with only 2 men killed and 24 missing.
The Altar to Liberty in Green-Wood, located at the highest point in Brooklyn, the top of Battle Hill, is dedicated to the Battle of Brooklyn. The monument is the Roman goddess Minerva laying a wreath on top of an altar.
Additionally, each year, Green-Wood holds a reenactment of the Battle Brooklyn, honoring the cemetery’s historic past.
To read more about this historic event, check out Green-Wood Cemetery’s Revolutionary War Past
3. The Brownstone Gate
The arches were built in 1861-1863 during the Civil War, designed in the late Revival Gothic style by Richard Upjohn and his son Richard M. Upjohn. Richard Senior is a familiar name to New York City as the same man who designed the Trinity Church on Wall Street, as well as being the first president of the American Institution of Architects. Richard Junior is interred here at Green-Wood.
Made of Brownstone, this gate is made up of three pinnacles towers with two pointed-arch entrances. Decorated with Gothic tracery and sandstone reliefs depicted biblical and allegorical scenes, the entrance to the cemetery stands tall and strong. Finally, on either side of the arches are two pavilions for a visitors center and cemetery office.
2. Mausoleums In Many Different Architectural Styles
Given the sheer amount of individuals here and the almost 200 year history, the monuments, mausoleums, sculptures, and tomb stones here are Green-Wood represent a wide variety of architectural and artistic styles. Most mausoleums are built in the Classical style featuring columns, but there’s also a large number of Gothic inspired ones as well. Others look like ornate, medieval chapels, and there are even Egyptian inspired monuments, especially obelisks.
There are also many sculptures across the entire 478 acres, some part of specific tombs, others more decorative. One statue in particular caused a little controversy: Civic Virtue. Originally unveiled as part of a monumental fountain in City Hall Park in 1922, the sculpture group was intended to be an allegorical representation of Virtue triumphing over Treachery and Corruption.
The problem was that Virtue (a man) was standing over and defeating Vice in the form of female mermaids, coming off oppressive to women. It moved to Queens in 1941 only to be met with a new wave of feminists who took issue with it as well, ultimately leading the sculpture to be “banned” to Green-Wood on December 15, 2012.
1. Cemetery’s Chapel and Warren & Wetmore
The architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore have left their mark across the city, designing some of the city’s most prominent buildings in the early 20th century, including Grand Central Terminal and Chelsea Piers. The Green-Wood Chapel stands along side those famed buildings. This Gothic Revival style chapel was built in 1911, and designed by Warren & Wetmore, inspired by the Tom Tower, a famous bell tower in Oxford, England. In the inside, there is a beautiful, large stained glass window, and a chandelier suspended under a rib-vaulted ceiling.