Saturday, February 19, 2011

The 1831 New York City Marble Cemetery

photo by Demadeo
By the 1830's the residential neighborhood known as the Bond Street Area featured handsome Federal-style mansions and merchant-class homes filled with furniture by Duncan Phyfe and Joseph Meeks. On Second Avenue, hidden behind houses with only a narrow passage marked by a wrought-iron gate, the New York Marble Cemetery was established in 1830.

A severely conservative space, it was surrounded by a rubble stone wall in which three tiers of marble plaques documented the names of the interred. No monuments or headstones were allowed, leaving the burial ground to appear as a grassy lawn.

A year later, around the corner on East 2nd Street between First and Second Avenues a second cemetery was begun on property possessed by Samuel Cowdrey (who already owned a vault in the Second Avenue graveyard).  Organized by a group of well-to-do businessmen including Thomas Addis Emmet, Garret Storm, Henry Booraem, Samel Whittemore and Evert Bancker, it had the confusingly similar name of The New York City Marble Cemetery.  It would be the second non-sectarian cemetery in the city.

According to historical commentator Helen Henderson in her 1917 book A Loiterer in New York, it “was started as a rather potent rival…In this cemetery tombstones and monuments were allowed, and the vault owners seem to have been at some pains to show how really lovely such memorials could be made, and how worthy of a place in the city beautiful.”

By 1835, additional lots of land had been added to accommodate 25 vaults. A high brick wall ran around three sides while the 2nd Street side was guarded by an elegant cast iron fence and gate. Long walks separated the lines of vaults and the New York City Marble Cemetery became a fashionable burial site for New York’s wealthy families.

As the century progressed beautiful marble monuments were erected to mark the graves of notable New Yorkers – New York City Mayor and New York State Governor Stephen Allen, James Lenox, Revolutionary War hero Marinus Willet, Samuel Kip (remembered in the name of Kip’s Bay) and all of his family, six Roosevelts, and Mayor Isaac Varian.

The “Ministers’ Vault” held the remains of the Dutch settlers disinterred from their original resting place far downtown. “One of the most graceful monuments,” according to Henderson, “is to the memory of Preserved Fish, a shipping merchant.”

Other notable persons buried here were John Lloyd Stephens, the archaeologist who pioneered exploration of Mayan Mexico, John Ericsson who invented the Civil War ironclad Monitor (his body was later removed to Sweden), Stephen Decatur, James Watson Webb, Jonathan Ogden and Moses Taylor.

One of the first persons buried in the cemetery was former President James Monroe who died in New York of tuberculosis and heart failure on July 4, 1831; the same year the burial ground was opened. Thirty-three pall bearers accompanied his coffin, followed by an impressive stream of veterans, dignitaries, and family.  Thousands crammed the streets to view the procession up Broadway to Monroe’s son-in-law’s crypt.  Church bells tolled throughout the city and cannons from the Battery were fired.

The State of Virginia, 27 years later, petitioned for reburial of the president in his home state.  On July 2, 1858, the body was exhumed and the following day loaded on the ship Jamestown for its journey home.

In the decades after the Civil War the Bond Street area lost favor as prosperous families moved further uptown. Beginning in the 1870's some relatives removed the remains of their families to cemeteries in more fashionable districts.

With the neighborhood changing, concerned lot owners formed a group of Trustees to ensure the care and maintenance of the cemetery and subscriptions were sold for its upkeep.  Rumors in 1890 that the valuable real estate would be sold for development were quickly dispelled by Erasmus Sterling, secretary of the Trustees. “The lot owners have inherent rights,” he said, “which cannot be abrogated. We have the financial means to keep the cemetery in permanent good order and the grounds will be cared for by a competent Superintendent.”

At the time there was a comfortable $17,000 in the permanent fund, greatly assisted by a bequest of $5,000 from William C. Treadwell’s estate.

By 1897 the cemetery, while carefully maintained, was little used and was being hemmed in by tenement buildings.  The elegant brick homes with marble trim were mostly a memory. That year, when the body of millionaire Reuben B. Withers was returned from Paris for burial here, the ceremony -- now no longer routine -- caused a stir.  The New York Times commented that a “burial, a rare occurrence in these days for the place, occurred yesterday in the quaint old New York City Marble Cemetery in Second Street, Between First and Second Avenues.

“Women and children thronged the windows and fire escapes of the tenements which look down upon the cemetery, and street urchins crowded about the iron fence to see the burial,” the newspaper said.
Tenements press in along the walls of the New York City Marble Cemetery in the early 20th Century - photo by Victor Volnar -- from the collection of the New York Public Library 
The trustees of the cemetery held annual meetings and refused to allow the New York City Marble Cemetery to fall into neglect, as had the nearby New York Marble Cemetery.  On March 19, 1905 The Times reported that the older cemetery was in derelict condition.  “Some of the vaults have fallen in,” it said, “and in the course of time others may do so; the wall surrounding the cemetery has commenced to fall and there are no funds for repairs.”

The newspaper went on to contrast the two burial grounds, saying of the New York City Marble Cemetery, “Unlike the other cemetery, this place is a veritable beauty spot in Summer, splendidly laid out with flower beds, with a great abundance of creeping ivy, shrubs, and vines, several lindens, a few monuments – a well-kept place.”

Helen Henderson, in writing about the cemetery in 1917, agreed, saying, “The walls too are covered with vines and most appropriate shrubs and trees, in the weeping willow style, and have been well cared for during eighty-odd years.”

The quiet and picturesque little cemetery, which was given landmark status in 1969, was jolted into public awareness in 2010 when a maintenance worker discovered a garbage bag containing what the New York City Police Department Bomb Squad identified as C-4 military-grad explosive bricks.  The plastic explosives, more powerful than TNT, were removed without incident.

This picturesque page from New York's genteel past is still lovingly maintained yet widely unknown.

non-credited photographs were taken by the author

1 comment:

  1. As a "Graveyard Rabbit", I can't believe I missed this post, even if it was years ago. Next trip, I will visit and say hello to Preserved Fish.