In 1838, the city of Brooklyn (when it was the country’s third largest city) opened one of America’s most important green spaces, Green-wood Cemetery and it’s the topic of an entire exhibit at The Museum of The City of New York. If it seems odd to think of the opening of a cemetery as a significant historic event, it’s merely because you lack the context of the era. In the thirty years prior to Green-wood, New York City had nearly tripled in size. The opening of the Erie Canal brought major goods to New York from the land past the once impenetrable Appellation Mountains and people from all over the world were flocking to the city to make their fortunes. Unfortunately, building was happening so quickly that many of the smaller gardens and wooded areas that once existed were being used to build tenements (a multi-occupancy building) as opposed to the single family homes which had dominated the city at one point. Those who grew up in New York barely recognized their home. Green spaces were disappearing as were plots in the smaller church graveyards in Lower Manhattan. Many of New York’s citizens wound up being buried in a potter’s field that used to occupy the land where Washington Square Park now sits.
Across the river in Brooklyn, Henry Evelyn Pierrepont, a city planner who would become known as “Brooklyn’s first citizen” because of his passion for the city, was already planning a solution… Green-wood Cemetery. The 478 acres instantly became the en vogue place to be buried but something else happened too. The cemetery, unique large in its scale became a tourist destination. Originally it served as a sort of outdoor museums a place to remember significant individuals but soon people began to visit Green-wood and several other urban cemeteries which were now being built, to enjoy its beauty as a garden. This behavior sparked one of New York’s most prominent landscape architects, Andrew Jackson Downing, to become one of the most influential proponents for the creation of a public park in New York City.
Judging from the crowds of people in carriages, and on foot, which I find constantly thronging Green-wood…I think it is plain enough how much our citizens, of all classes, would enjoy public parks on a similar scale. Indeed, the only drawback to these beautiful and highly kept cemeteries, to my taste, is the gala-day air of recreation they present. People seem to go there to enjoy themselves, and not to indulge in any serious recollections or regrets. Can you doubt that if our large towns had suburban pleasure grounds, like Green-wood, (excepting the monuments)…they would become the constant resort of the citizens, or that, being so, they would tend to soften and allay some of the
feverish unrest of business which seems to have possession of most Americans, body and soul?
Now, if hundreds of thousands of the inhabitants of cities, like New York, will…incur the expense and trouble of going five or six miles to visit Greenwood [sic], we think it may safely be estimated that a much larger number would resort to a public garden…. That such a project, carefully planned, and liberally and judiciously carried out, would not
only pay, in money, but largely civilize and refine the national character, foster the love of rural beauty, and increase the knowledge of and taste for rare and beautiful trees and plants, we cannot entertain a reasonable doubt.
While a trip to Green-wood Cemetery today would only cost $2.50 in subway fare, public transit of this sort did not exist at the time, electricity didn’t even exist nor did a bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn. These sorts of excursions showed a strong desire to connect with the outdoors. Downing went on to point out in other publications the oddity of spending leisure time among the deceased. Later he went to Europe to study the parks that existed there and when he returned he brought back Calvert Vaux who would one day design Central Park with Fredrick Law Olmsted. Downing’s writings stirred something in the people of time and it was not long before political candidates were talking about the creation of a new public park… a Central Park.
Over the years many notable people have been buried in the cemetery including William Magear “Boss” Tweed, Leonard Bernstein, DeWitt Clinton, Horrace Greeley, and Peter Cooper. Starting on May 15th, The City of The Museum of New York will have a whole exhibit about Green-wood called “A Beautiful Way to Go.” It will cover the history, architecture, and also feature artifacts and art influenced by the cemetery itself. If you’ve never been to an exhibit at the museum, this would be a great one to start out with.