Green-Wood Cemetery was founded in 1838 as a rural cemetery in Kings County, New York. Like other early rural cemeteries, Green-Wood was founded in a time of rapid urbanization when churchyards in New York City were becoming overcrowded.
Located in Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn, the cemetery 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”.
The gates of the cemetery were designated a New York City landmark in 1966, and the Weir Greenhouse, used as a visitor’s center, in 1982. The cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 and was granted National Historic Landmark status in 2006 by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Fort Hamilton Parkway Gate and the cemetery’s chapel were designated as landmarks by New York City in 2016.
The popularity of Green-Wood Cemetery inspired a competition to design a “Central Park” for NYC. It essentially inspired the creation of Central Park and Prospect Park.
There are several famous monuments located there, including a statue of DeWitt Clinton, and a memorial erected by James Brown, president of Brown Brothers bank and the Collins Line, to the six members of his family lost in the SS Arctic disaster of 1854. This incorporates a sculpture of the ship, half-submerged by the waves. As well as a Civil War Memorial, during the Civil War, Green-Wood Cemetery created the “Soldiers’ Lot” for free veterans’ burials.
The gates were designed by Richard Upjohn in Gothic Revival style. The main entrance to the cemetery was built in 1861-65 of Belleville, New Jersey brownstone. The sculptured groups on Nova Scotia limestone panels depicting biblical scenes of death and resurrection from the New Testament including Lazarus, The Widow’s Son, and Jesus’ Resurrection over the gateways are the work of sculptor John M. Moffitt. A Designated Landmarks of New York plaque was erected on it in 1958 by the New York Community Trust, and it was designated an official New York City landmark in 1966.
Several wooden shelters were also built, including one in a Gothic Revival style, one resembling an Italian villa, 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 gate, as well as other areas in Brooklyn. On December 5, 1876, the Brooklyn Theater Fire claimed the lives of at least 278 individuals, with some accounts reporting over 300 dead. Out of that total, 103 unidentified victims were interred in a common grave at Green-Wood Cemetery. An obelisk near the main entrance at Fifth Avenue and 25th Street marks the burial site. More than two dozen identified victims were interred individually in separate sections at the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn. Also buried at the cemetery are 6 British Commonwealth service personnel whose graves are registered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 3 from World War I and 3 from World War II, among the latter being Leading Aircraftsman Remsen Taylor Williams (died 1941 aged 26), Royal Canadian Air Force, who is buried in the Steinway Vault.
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’s chapel was completed in 1911. It was designed by the architectural firm of Warren and Wetmore, who also designed Grand Central Terminal, the Commodore Hotel, the Yale Club and many other buildings. The architecture of the chapel is a reduced version of Christopher Wren’s Thomas Tower at Christ Church College in Oxford, and was restored in 2001.
In 1999, The Green-Wood Historic Fund, a 501(c)(3) 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.
The vandalism on August 21, 2012 was one of the worst cases encountered in Green-Wood. Individual(s) was said to have jumped the fence and damage about 50 monuments and memorials.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy toppled or damaged at least 292 of the mature trees, 210 gravestones, and 2 mausoleums in the cemetery. The damage was estimated at $500,000.
In December 2012 the controversial and much traveled statue ‘’The Triumph of Civic Virtue’’ by Frederick MacMonnies was moved to Green-Wood.
Another sculpture, the Angel of Music made by Giancarlo Biagi and Jill Burkee, was revealed and memorialized Louis Moreau Gottschalk, America’s first matinee idol and international music superstar.
In August 2013, in partnership with the Connecticut Society of the Cincinnati, signage in the Battle Hill area of the cemetery was updated to reflect new research on Battle Hill’s importance in the Battle of Brooklyn.
The Historic Fund’s Civil War Project
The Historic Fund’s Civil War Project, an effort to identify and remember Civil War veterans buried at Green-Wood, was born of the enthusiasm felt at the rededication ceremony of Civil War Soldiers’ Monument. These early graves have either sunk into the soil, been damaged, or have their markers erased.