THE FINAL RESTING PLACE OF NOTABLES FROM BASQUIAT TO BERNSTEIN AND A VERDANT AND HISTORIC GEM, GREEN WOOD CEMETERY, AS DESCRIBED BY ITS BROOKLYN BORN PRESIDENT, REMAINS VIBRANT IN ITS EDUCATIONAL AND CULTURAL OUTREACH
BY CATHERINE GIGANTE BROWN • PHOTOS BY AMANDA DOMENECH
Visit a magical Victorian circus. Become immersed in a spellbinding play. Explore site specific art installations. Admire exquisite Tiffany glass windows. No need to crisscross Brooklyn to experience the above. All these and more await at Green Wood Cemetery, the Greenwood Heights showpiece founded in 1838 by Henry Evelyn Pierrepoint. Its original layout was conceived by the engineer David Bates Douglass a design that now includes 478 acres of sprawling hills, undulating valleys, glacial ponds, and one of the world’s largest outdoor collections of 19th and 20th century statuary and mausoleums. Famous names among the 560,000 people buried here include William Magear “Boss” Tweed, Jean Michel Basquiat, Leonard Bernstein, and Susan McKinney Steward, the first African American woman physician in New York state.
By the early 1860s, everyone who was anyone wanted to be buried in Green Wood, including a number of Civil War generals. It wasn’t unusual for Victorians to spend the day picnicking, taking carriage rides, and visiting loved ones. Quickly becoming the borough’s preferred green space, Green Wood inspired the creation of both Central and Prospect Parks.
Today, it boasts some 320,000 annual visitors, and was for a time second only to Niagara Falls in the country in terms of visits. It has been a National Historic Landmark since 2006.
“While some believe cemeteries should be somber and sad, we look at Green Wood the way the Victorians did a place to celebrate people’s lives and honor them,” said the institution’s Brooklyn born President, Richard Moylan.
The entirety of Moylan’s career has been cultivated on these grounds. “My father was a contractor here,” he recalled. “He cleaned and installed the stones. When I finished high school, my dad asked if I wanted a summer job. That job lasted 47 years.”
He began in 1972, working with the lawn maintenance crew, then rose to office clerk and field supervisor while attending Hunter College and New York Law School. “When I passed the bar, I was looking at big law firms, but they weren’t looking at me,” he laughed.
The cemetery’s then CEO was nearing retirement and offered Moylan the opportunity to work in its executive office. As assistant secretary, he took on a myriad of duties, among them learning the in house portfolio management system and rewriting the institution’s rules and regulations. “In 1986, I started attending board meetings,” he said.
When the CEO passed away unexpectedly, Moylan was invited to become Green Wood’s president. It’s been 33 years since he took on the role.
“Little by little, I became more involved in operations and figuring out where we wanted to be when we were a less active cemetery,” he explained. “Our available land for new in ground burials is limited. We had to face what was going to happen when no one came here anymore.”
The solution? Keeping the landmark “alive” with innovative programs and events.
“Harry Weil, our director of public programs and special projects, has come up with some very interesting ideas that people love,” said Moylan. “Our programming team is extremely inventive.”
In 2019, Janine Antoni’s art installation, “I am fertile ground,” opened in the Catacombs (a long mausoleum built into a hillside, and containing dozens of vaults). Artist Sophie Calle’s interactive “Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green Wood Cemetery” is a 25 year project where individuals can deposit secrets into a marble obelisk until 2042.
“It’s gotten so that people come to us with proposals,” said Moylan.
Performances on site have included The Spoon River Project (based on Edward Lee Masters’ 1915 collection of free verse poems, The Spoon River Anthology) the compelling play, accompanied by music, was performed by moonlight amid granite monuments, marble sculptures and brownstone mausoleums. A Night at Niblo’s Garden, meanwhile, briefly transforms prominent 19th century theatre owner William Niblo’s final resting place into an old time bazaar complete with acrobats, musicians, and entertainers, courtesy of the Bindle stiff Family Cirkus.
“It’s become an annual event and consistently sells out,” Moylan said.
There are also intriguing programs like “Tiffany at Green Wood” (a number of mausoleums feature stained glass windows made by Louis Comfort Tiffany, who is also buried here), as well as walking, trolley, and twilight tours. Birding walks highlight warblers, vireos, and the ever present monk parakeets that have taken up residence, particularly atop the Gothic Revival arch at the 25th Street entrance. The entertainment industry has also taken a shine to the location films like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and TV shows like Law & Order have been partially shot here.
Looking to events and programs in 2020 and beyond, the cemetery will renew its partnership with Death of Classical to present “The Angel’s Share,” a concert series in the Catacombs. It will also continue outdoor screenings with Rooftop Films. A range of other programs are in the works.
One of Green Wood’s best kept secrets is its vast collection of art, some by permanent residents. “We’ve identified more than 450 artists whose final resting place is here,” said Moylan. “Some famous and some not so. Our collection has grown into 400 paintings by 200 artists, including Eastman Johnson. We even have several ‘double headers’ portraits of someone buried here painted by someone buried here.”
Although as much of this art as possible is on display, Moylan longs to have a proper place to showcase it.
“When we build our Education and Welcome Center across the street, we’ll have a dedicated exhibition space,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be great to see an artist’s painting and then visit their gravesite? Our wish is to become a true cultural institution in every sense of the word.”
The most challenging aspects of the president’s duties are also the most promising, he said. These include work on restoring the Greenhouse, a graceful but fragile Victorian structure of iron and glass. Its pace of work has been slow and costly, but it’s moving forward, and there are plans to craft the Education and Welcome Center around it.
“Partnering with the City and State government, we’ve secured approximately $4 million in grants,” Moylan said. “Our board has also committed funds, but the missing piece right now is getting private funding. When the Greenhouse is unveiled and a sign is posted detailing the specifics of the Welcome Center, my hope is that some angel will donate what we need to finish it.”
The beauty of this singular urban space comes with a significant upkeep burden.
“Maintenance is and always will be very expensive,” said Moylan. “With its steep banks and winding curves, we’re constantly doing upkeep,” adding that the Chapel, a 1911 Gothic structure by the firm Warren and Wetmore (which also designed Grand Central Terminal), is undergoing a major restoration.
“We’ve had to suspend events we used to hold there,” the president said, “which featured performers like Danny Kalb, Larry Campbell, and Teresa Williams, but I hope to get shows up and running when the restoration is finished.”
Despite the challenges of keeping a more than 180 year old institution vibrant and solvent, it’s evident that Moylan loves his work. “It keeps me wanting to come back every day,” he smiled.
Green Wood Cemetery
500 25th Street / green-wood.com