By Albert Amateau
It was more of a garden party than a solemn occasion last Sunday when the New York City Marble Cemetery on E. Second St. opened its gate to the public for the first time that anyone can remember.
An eclectic mix of East Village neighbors and descendents of the prominent families that founded the cemetery turned out for the public event on a mild All Souls Day, Nov. 2.
Helen Roosevelt (of the Teddy Roosevelt branch of the family), president of the cemetery trustees, was on hand along with her son Andrew, also a trustee. So were Bob and Isabelle Gaulin, next-door neighbors of the cemetery, which has been a New York City-designated landmark since 1969.
“I used to live on First Ave. and I would always walk down this block on my way home because it’s so peaceful,” Bob Gaulin said. The Gaulins moved to their E. Second St. brownstone in 1968 and look down on the cemetery lawn from their bedroom window. “We can hear birds singing and see squirrels on the lawn — it’s like the country,” Isabelle said.
Andrew Knox, an architect who is both a descendant and a neighbor, came to the ceremony with his wife and daughter. Knox, a cemetery trustee, makes his home on Allen St. “I have a great-uncle buried here,” he said.
Father Christopher, of the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin, an Orthodox church across the street from the cemetery, was another visitor, and so was Ludmilla Limberea and her two children, members of the Holy Virgin congregation who live in Staten Island.
The Veteran Corps of Artillery, a ceremonial color guard wearing 1812 military dress uniforms, marched to the center and a bugler blew taps to mark the occasion.
The open house last Sunday could become a regular event, said Colleen Iverson, director of the landmarked burial ground. The cemetery’s endowment, and the fees it charges for the rare interments, are barely enough to maintain the grounds. So the trustees are raising funds to assure the future of the one of the oldest burial grounds in Manhattan.
The cemetery was laid out on the north side of E. Second St. east of Second Ave. in 1831 when the neighborhood was rural and the wealthy organizers thought that Second Ave. would develop the way Fifth Ave. eventually did. There are 258 marble-lined underground vaults accessible from square marble shaft covers set in the lawn of the cemetery. Descendents of the original vault owners can still be interred there. The most recent burial was 18 months ago, Iverson said.
Over the decades, more than 3,000 remains — most of them now handfuls of dust — have been placed in the vaults. “We’re not really sure,” said Iverson. “The records from 1831 to 1845 were lost in a fire,” she explained. Of the 258 vaults, 105 are known to belong to living descendents of owners. “That means there are 153 vaults that we don’t know anything about — the descendents of their owners could be in the thousands.” Some vaults hold remains transferred from Lower Manhattan churchyards that have long since disappeared.
James Roosevelt, the founder of Roosevelt Hospital and a trustee of the New York City Marble Cemetery, was originally buried in the hospital grounds, said Helen Roosevelt. “They moved him around up there, but in 1995 we brought him here. It was a celebration and we served champagne,” she recalled.
President James Monroe was buried in his son-in-law’s vault in 1831, but in 1858, the state of Virginia moved his remains to Richmond. Other famous New Yorkers whose remains are in the vaults are James Lenox, whose collection of books helped form the nucleus of the New York Public Library, and John Lloyd Stephens, the archeologist who made the Mayan civilization known to the world in 1849.
For the past few years, Gresham Lang, a garden designer, has been supervising the maintenance of the cemetery. “When I started here in 1998 there were piles of rubble; we took out 50 cubic yards of it. One of the problems is that the houses just north of us have sunk over the years, leaving our wall leaning badly. It’s buttressed where it has to be and we’re working on a plan to fix it.”
A few years ago during an interment, one section of the cemetery wall near the open vault collapsed as the last notes of taps faded. “No one was hurt but it was a terrible shock,” Iverson said. The incident showed the need to find funds to maintain the burial ground.
The New York City Marble Cemetery is often confused with the New York Marble Cemetery on the west side of Second Ave. between E. Second and E. Third Sts. That cemetery in the interior of the block is reached through a gated narrow alley at 41 1/2 Second Ave. It was founded in 1830 by many of the same people who organized the New York City Marble Cemetery on Second St. a year later.
The New York Marble has been open to the public for the past few years on the fourth Sunday of every month and on All Souls Day. Last Sunday, there was much cross-visiting from one cemetery to the other.