Standing 149 feet tall in front of a grand 100-step granite staircase, the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park is rarely opened for visitors. Untapped Cities contributors and New York City photographers James and Karla Murray were recently granted access on a special visit with Open House New York and they captured stunning photographs from inside the over 100-year old structure that stands on top of the remains of thousands of American prisoners of the Revolutionary War.
The interior of the column contains now only a single iron ladder, but there was once an elevator and stairs. The elevator and stairs led to an observation deck at the top of the monument in the 1930s, but were removed in 1948 when the NYC Parks Department carried out renovations. By 1970 the elevator pit was filled in.
The impressive monument is dedicated to the 11,500 men and women who died as prisoners of war during the American Revolution. After winning the Battle of Long Island and control of Fort Putnam, later rebuilt and renamed Fort Greene during the War of 1812 at the site of Fort Greene Park, the British detained thousands of American men and women on prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay. On the ships, the prisoners experienced overcrowding, contaminated water, starvation and disease. The bodies of those who died were haphazardly buried along the shore.
In 1808 the remains of those prisoners were relocated to a more proper burial site inside a tomb on Jackson Street near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1873 the remains were relocated once again and brought to Fort Greene Park, known at the time as Washington Park. Encased in twenty-two boxes, only a portion of the remains were brought over to the park and interred in a 25×11 foot brick vault. Washington Park was a newly designated public space designed by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the same men who designed Central Park and Prospect Park.
In response to public demand for a permanent memorial to the prison ship martyrs, the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White was hired to design a new entrance to the crypt in 1905. The towering Doric column and surrounding staircase and plaza atop the hill were dedicated in 1908 at a ceremony attended by President elect William Howard Taft. The bronze pieces of the monument, which include the large urn on top, were designed by Sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman. The monument was once adorned with four bronze eagles as well, but they were removed to storage in the 1960s after being repeatedly vandalized. In 2008, 100 years after the original dedication, two of the bronze eagles were restored and reinstalled along with two replicas. The monument was also cleaned and repaired and new architectural lighting was added to illuminate the plaza and monument at night.
If you wish to visit the remains inside the monument, The Society of Old Brooklynites hosts a visit inside once a year, but you have to be a member of the society to enter. In order to join, you must have lived or worked in Brooklyn for the past 25 years.
Next, check out The Top 10 Secrets of Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn