Category Archives: Manhattan

St. Thomas’ Churchyard

An 1826 drawing of the first St. Thomas Church at Broadway and Houston Streets (St. Thomas Church )

St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue is one of America’s most beautiful places of worship, renowned for its glorious liturgical music and stunning architecture. Situated at the heart of Midtown since 1868, this Episcopal parish has its roots in the lower part of Manhattan. In 1823, a group from the city’s three largest Episcopal parishes—all located at the overcrowded southern tip of Manhattan—met to discuss the need for new church further uptown, where residents were migrating. In January of 1825, St. Thomas Church was incorporated and that July ground was broken for their church building at the northwest corner of Broadway and Houston Street, a location then at the edge of the settled city.

Detail from an 1852 map showing St. Thomas Church at Broadway and Houston. Burial vaults were located in the churchyard behind the building.

To raise money for their first house of worship, the vestry of St. Thomas decided to utilize open ground behind the church for burial vaults. Here they built 58 vaults, each 9×11 feet, that were sold for $250 each. At least 36 of the vaults were purchased by families of St. Thomas. Among those who acquired a family vault was William Backhouse Astor, a member of St. Thomas’ original vestry. William B. Astor’s father John Jacob Astor, the wealthiest man in the country at that time, was interred in William’s private vault in St. Thomas’ churchyard when he died in 1848.

The first St. Thomas Church was consecrated in 1826. Designed in the Gothic style, it had octagonal towers that rose over the countryside like a castle. After it was destroyed in an 1851 fire, a second church was built on the same site. But by that time, the once-fashionable neighborhood at Broadway and Houston Street had changed dramatically, the church shared the street with bawdy dance halls, saloons, and hotels, and many of its members had moved on. In the 1860s, the congregation made plans to relocate even farther uptown, acquiring land at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street for a new church.

An 1824 notice for burial vaults for sale at St. Thomas churchyard

Removal of the burial vaults in the churchyard posed a difficulty in the sale of St. Thomas’ church  property at Broadway and Houston. When the vestry originally sold the vault lots at the rear of the church, the deeds protected the rights of the vault owners for the duration of the church’s corporation. Consequently, the property as a whole could not be sold unless the vault owners agreed to surrender their rights or to sell the land back to the corporation. Many vault holders did agree to transfer the remains of their family members to other places; the remains of the Astors, for example, were removed to Trinity Cemetery. But some refused to give their consent and over a hundred bodies were still interred in the vaults at the time the property was to be sold.

Notice of John Jacob Astor’s funeral and interment in his son’s burial vault in St. Thomas Churchyard in 1848

After several years of legal wrangling, in 1868 a settlement was reached wherein the vestry was compelled to pay $48,550 to the owners of the 28 vaults that were still occupied and the remains were subsequently removed. On October 14, 1868, the cornerstone of the new St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue was laid. This structure was destroyed by fire in 1905 and replaced by the present sanctuary, a French Gothic Revival masterpiece completed in 1916. The site of the parish’s first church building and burial vaults at Broadway and Houston is now occupied by the Cable Building, built in 1892.

A modern map shows the Cable Building at the site of the original St. Thomas Church and burial vaults (NYCityMap)

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; “Private Vaults,” Evening Post, Apr 7, 1824;  “Funeral of John Jacob Astor,” New York Daily Tribune, Apr 1, 1848;  “Difficulties in St. Thomas’s Church,” New York Daily Tribune, Apr 20, 1860; “Removal of St. Thomas’ Church,” New York Times, July 31, 1860; “Sale and Removal  of St. Thomas’s Church,” New York Daily Tribune, July 28, 1860; “Sale of St. Thomas’ Church, in Broadway,” New York Times, Aug 2, 1865; “Sale of St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church; The World, Aug 2, 1865; “Two More Landmarks Gone,” Evening Post, Jun 11, 1866; Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (Wright 2001); From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship (Dunlap 2004); All Around the Town: Amazing Manhattan Facts and Curiosities (Bunyan 1999); The Gate of Heaven: The Story of St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (Our Town Films 1999)

German Catholic Cemetery, 124th Street

An 1869 notice in the New York Herald announces the removal of remains from the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street

Even as New York’s Catholic population grew from no more than 200 at the end of the Revolutionary era to 400,000 by the mid-19th century, there was but one official cemetery for Manhattan’s Catholics, each closing in turn as it reached capacity. The first was around St. Peter’s in Barclay street, the second at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, the third on 11th Street, and, in 1848,  Calvary Cemetery in Queens. Parishes throughout Manhattan were expected to bury their dead in the authorized cemetery and were prohibited by the diocese (archdiocese after 1850) from establishing graveyards adjacent to their churches or elsewhere.

But Manhattan’s early German Catholics were eager to have their own burial places, separate from the Irish that dominated the designated cemetery for the diocese/archdiocese. Several German Catholic parishes established cemeteries, or attempted to do so, and were censured for their defiance and their burial grounds closed. One of these was the Church of St. John the Baptist on 30th Street, whose trustees opened a cemetery on property they acquired in 1848.  State Senator Erastus Brooks provides an account of this cemetery in an 1855 editorial letter:

On 123d and 124th streets, there is a burial ground covering eight lots, belonging to the Church of St. John the Baptist, built on 30th street. The owners were Germans. They built a church and selected a suitable place for the burial of their dead. For some time, without restraint from the Archbishop or others, they were permitted to inter the members of their congregation in these grounds, which were sacred both to the memory of the dead and to their friends. The Archbishop interposed, and prohibited the use of the grounds for this purpose.

The congregation, in a spirit of German independence, continued to bury their dead there, notwithstanding the prohibition of the Archbishop. It was then announced by authority from the pulpit, that burial services would not be permitted there any longer. Still the congregation persisted in exercising their rights as men, and in discharging their duty to the dead. For a time the dead were buried without the usual funeral ceremonies or services. The Archbishop in the exercise of his highhanded power, then took the Priest from the congregation, and, as a consequence, the Church had to be closed, and was closed for some time.

The German Catholic Cemetery depicted on an 1851 map of upper Manhattan. Although it appears here that the cemetery extended over entire block, other sources indicate it was confined to the center of the block, in the area denoted by arrow

An 1851 map of upper Manhattan shows this German Catholic Cemetery and implies that it extended the entire block bounded by 123rd and 124th Streets and 7th and 8th Avenues (now Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevards). However, other documentary evidence and historical accounts indicate the cemetery was confined to a parcel at the middle of the block (indicated by arrow on the map detail above). No evidence has been found of the number nor names of those interred there.

As noted in Senator Brooks’ letter, the archdiocese interdicted St. John the Baptist for their cemetery, as well as for other disagreements with church authorities, and the parish was consistently troubled until it was reorganized under the control of Capuchin Franciscan friars in 1871. In 1869, the remains from the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street were removed to Calvary Cemetery. The property was subsequently sold to help fund a new church building for the resurrected St. John the Baptist parish; this building still stands at West 30th Street. Apartment buildings are at the former site of the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street.

2018 aerial view of the German Catholic Cemetery site today (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of New-York North of 50th St (Dripps 1851); “Catholic Cemetery and Catholic Burials,” New-York Freemans Journal and Catholic Register, Aug 23, 1851; The Controversy Between Senator Brooks and † John, Archbishop of New York…(Tisdale 1855); “Special Notices,” New York Herald, April 4, 1869; The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914); The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 (Dolan 1975); Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010); Ennis Francis Houses 1A Documentary Report (Geismar 2010)

88th Street Jewish Cemetery

An 1897 map shows the 88th Street Jewish Cemetery between Park and Madison Avenues

With the growth of New York City’s Jewish population and the increase in the number of synagogues, some two dozen Jewish graveyards were established in Manhattan between 1825 and the late 1840s. Most of these cemeteries were used for just a short time before their owners acquired new burial grounds at the large, rural Jewish cemeteries created in Brooklyn and Queens in the mid-1800s. By the turn of the century, the only Jewish cemeteries left in the city were those belonging to Shearith Israel, the city’s oldest Jewish congregation. In 1899, the last of Manhattan’s Jewish graveyards—excluding the Shearith Israel grounds—disappeared when “the old Jewish Cemetery” on 88th Street in Yorkville was removed.

This detail from an 1871 lot map shows the four lots that formed the 88th Street Jewish Cemetery. Shaare Zedek owned lots 282 & 283; Rodeph Sholom owned Lots 284 & 285

The cemetery originated in 1840, when Shaare Zedek (Gates of Righteousness)—a Polish Jewish congregation founded in 1837—acquired two lots on the south side of 88th Street, between present-day Park and Madison Avenues, as a burial place for their members. In 1842, a group of German Jews formed Rodeph Sholom (Pursuer of Peace) and in October of that same year acquired two lots adjoining Shaare Zedek’s. The conjoined burial grounds formed an 87-foot x 100-foot cemetery that was cooperatively managed by the two synagogues. In 1856, the sister congregations built a high, thick brick wall around the entire property and erected heavy iron gates at the cemetery’s entrance on 88th Street. At the time this enclosure was built to protect the 88th Street cemetery, Rodeph Sholom had discontinued burials here and was interring their dead at their new cemetery in Queens, Union Field. A few years later, Shaare Zedek established Bayside Cemetery in Queens and also ceased burials at the 88th Street cemetery.

An 1864 newspaper clipping reports a suicide at the 88th Street Jewish Cemetery

By the 1860s, the 88th Street Jewish Cemetery was inactive and soon fell into disrepair. In 1879, a reporter from the New York Times found the brick wall broken and crumbling and observed goats belonging to the neighborhood squatters nibbling the grass and lying on the toppled tombstones that crowded the grounds. Shaare Zedek’s trustees found a buyer for their part of the property in 1881 and made arrangements to remove the bodies, but their plans were defeated by the furious opposition of those with relatives buried there and by Rodeph Sholom’s refusal to sell the adjoining grounds. Finally, in 1899 the two congregations proceeded with the removals and sold their lots. In 1901, The Jewish Messenger announced that William B. Leeds had acquired the 88th Street Jewish cemetery property and planned to erect a private stable on the site. Today, Shaare Zedek and Rodeph Sholom worship at synagogues on the Upper West Side, and a condominium building is at the site of the old 88th Street Jewish Cemetery.

This 1899 Jewish Messenger clipping notes the removal of the 88th Street Jewish Cemetery and laments the loss of the city’s Jewish burial grounds.
A 2018 aerial view with arrow denoting the former site of the 88th Street Jewish Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of that part of the Harlem Commons east of the 5th Ave. & Central Park : copied from the original map made by Joseph F. Bridges, City Surveyor, January 1826… (Holmes 1871); Bromley’s 1897 Atlas of the city of New York, Pl 30; New York County Conveyances, Vol 408 p325-327, Vol 1601 p184-185, Vol 430 p153-154, Vol 850 p616-618, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; “The Clinton and Henry Street Congregations,” The Asmonean, Aug 22, 1856; “Suicide at a Graveyard,” The World, May 20, 1864; “Suicide,” The Jewish Messenger, May 27, 1864; “An Up-Town Cemetery,” The Jewish Messenger, Mar 7, 1879; “Some Old Grave-yards,” New York Times, May 18, 1879; “Selling a Cemetery, The Jewish Messenger, Jun 17, 1881; “Old Graves to be Disturbed,” The Sun, Nov 14, 1892; [No title], The Jewish Messenger, Feb 3, 1899; “Brevities,” The Jewish Messenger, Dec 14, 1900; “Finance and Trade, “ The Jewish Messenger, Apr 26, 1901; Laws of the State of New York, Passed at the One Hundred and Twenty-Third Session of the Legislature, Begun Jan 3rd 1900 and Ended April 6th 1900, Chap. 34; Rise of the Jewish Community of New York (Grinstein 1945); Within the Gates: A Religious, Social and Cultural History 1837-1962 (Monsky 1964);  Dust to Dust: A History of Jewish Death and Burial in New York (Amanik 2019); Our History – Congregation Shaare Zedek; Our History – Congregation Rodeph Sholom 

Mendelssohn Benevolent Society Cemetery

Snippet from the Mendelssohn Benevolent Society’s charter and by-Laws, 1914

From the time Jews first settled in colonial New York until well into the 19th century, synagogues had a monopoly on Jewish burials and controlled all the city’s Jewish graveyards. But as New York’s Jewish population grew from a few hundred residents in the 1820s to about 40,000 by mid-century, some new immigrants eschewed the synagogues to form independent groups that provided benefits to their members, including graves and funeral arrangements. One of the first of these was the Mendelssohn Benevolent Society, formed in 1841. The objectives of the Society included “mutual relief of the members thereof, and their families, when in sickness, want, and destitution or distress,” and to acquire “a suitable burial ground” and defray funeral and burial costs for members and their families. Membership was open to any Jewish male between the ages of 21 and 45, who was a resident of New York City and “in full possession of all his mental and physical faculties, and of good character.”

An 1871 map shows the three lots (delineated in red) Mendelssohn Benevolent Society acquired in 1845 on 87th Street, east of Fourth (now Park) Avenue. Only the strip along the eastern edge of the property was used for burials (approximate boundary denoted here by dashed line)

In May of 1845, Mendelssohn Benevolent Society purchased land on the south side of 87th Street, between today’s Park and Lexington Avenues, and used part of this property as the Society’s cemetery. Society members and their families were interred here until 1851 when the Society purchased new burial grounds at Salem Fields Cemetery in Brooklyn. In 1858, the Society sold their property on 87th Street, excluding the “strip of land running along the whole of the easterly side” of the premises, 21.2 feet fronting on 87th Street and 100.8 ½ feet in depth, which was reserved by the Mendelssohn Benevolent Society and their successors “for a burying ground forever.” As part of the transfer, the new owner agreed to build “a good and substantial fence” on the westerly side of the burial ground and “forever keep it in good repair.”

This entry from from one of the city’s Bodies in Transit registers records the removal of remains from Mendelssohn Benevolent Society Cemetery to Salem Fields in 1878

Mendelssohn Benevolent Society retained their cemetery on 87th Street until March of 1878 when they removed the remains to their plot at Salem Fields and sold the 21.2 ft x 100.8 ½ ft burial ground property.  Mendelssohn Benevolent Society was still active in 1941 when 400 people attended their 100th-anniversary dinner at the Hotel Astor. However, like the majority of organizations of its kind, the Society declined as members died off and were not replaced by a new generation and is now defunct.

A 2018 aerial view shows the site of the former Mendelssohn Benevolent Society Cemetery; arrow denotes approximate location (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of that part of the Harlem Commons east of the 5th Ave. & Central Park : copied from the original map made by Joseph F. Bridges, City Surveyor, January 1826… (Holmes 1871); New York County Conveyances, Vol 465 p439-440, Vol 762 p621-624, Vol 1445 p407-408, Kings County Conveyances, Vol 285 p178-182, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; Bodies in Transit Register IX:1874-1880, Municipal Archives, City of New York; Mendelssohn Benevolent Society Charter and By-Laws, 1914; “Group Marks 100th Year,” New York Times, Oct 12, 1941; Rise of the Jewish Community of New York (Grinstein 1945); Dust to Dust: A History of Jewish Death and Burial in New York (Amanik 2019); Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020)

Shaaray Tefila Cemetery, 105th Street

This detail from an 1856 plan for Central Park depicts Shaaray Tefila’s cemetery (denoted as “Jews’ Cemetery”) at 105th Street west of Fifth Ave

In 1845, a group of about 50 English and Dutch members of B’nai Jeshurun seceded from the synagogue to form Congregation Shaaray Tefila (Gates of Prayer). Shaaray Tefila built their first synagogue in 1846 on Wooster Street and continues today at their present temple on 79th Street in the Upper East Side.

The first concern of the new organization was the purchase of property for a burial ground and in January of 1846—before Shaaray Tefila was yet legally incorporated—two founding members, Morland Micholl and John I. Hart (both former presidents of B’nai Jeshurun) acquired land for this purpose. Situated on the south side of 46th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, the property purchased by Micholl and Hart was quickly found not to be suitable for burials and was resold. On November 24, 1846, Louis Levy (Shaaray Tefila’s first president) purchased another parcel, on 105th Street near Fifth Avenue, that would go on to serve as Shaaray Tefila’s cemetery for the next decade. Levy transferred ownership of the property to the congregation when they received their charter in 1848.

Diagram from an archaeological survey of Central Park, showing the location of the site of  Shaaray Tefila’s former cemetery within the modern Conservatory Garden

Shaaray Tefila’s cemetery was located on the south side of 105th Street, west of Fifth Avenue, at the north end of today’s Central Park. The burial ground, 100 x 100 feet, was in the area now part of the Conservatory Garden. Just west of the former cemetery site is the Mount, where the Sisters of Charity established the religious community of Mount St. Vincent in 1847. Construction of Central Park forced both the Sisters of Charity and Shaaray Tefila to abandon their properties here. In 1856, Shaaray Tefila purchased a portion of the land held by its parent congregation, B’nai Jeshurun, at Beth Olam Cemetery in the Cypress Hills area of Brooklyn, and the two congregations decided to administer their burial grounds together. Remains from Shaaray Tefila’s 105th Street Cemetery were removed to their new burial ground at Beth Olam in 1857, at “very heavy expense to the Congregation,” according to an auditor’s report from June of that year.

A notice for the dedication of Morland Micholl’s monument at Shaaray Tefila’s 105th Street cemetery in 1854

It is not known how many members of Shaaray Tefila were interred in the 105th Street cemetery before its closure, but among their number was founding member Morland Micholl (mentioned above). A native of Chesham, England, Micholl was interred at the 105th Street cemetery when he died of a “short and severe illness” at age 56 in 1853. He was a prominent member of the city’s Jewish community for 30 years, and his obituary in The Asmonean asserts “his integrity as a merchant, his uprightness as a citizen, his piety as a religionist, and his charity as a man.”  Friends of the late Mr. Micholl assembled at the 105th Street cemetery on October 29, 1854, to dedicate his monument—a 10-foot-tall marble obelisk that faced the cemetery’s entrance. Micholl’s monument would stand for just a few years before the cemetery’s removal to Beth Olam, where he is now laid to rest.

2018 aerial photo of the Conservatory Garden at Central Park; arrow shows approximate location of the Shaaray Tefila cemetery site (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Plan of Buildings at Mount St. Vincent, Fourth Division—Central Park (Bacon 1856); New York County Conveyances, Vol 467, p520-522, Vol 489 p212-214, Vol 485, p207-208, Vol 668, p256-258 “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,”FamilySearch; “Morland Micholl,” The Asmonean⁩⁩, Apr 22, 1853; “Special Notice,” The Asmonean⁩⁩, Oct 27 1854; “Monument to the late Morland Micholl,” The Asmonean, Nov 3, 1854; “The Cemeteries,” The Asmonean⁩⁩, Feb 22, 1856; “Shaaray Tefilla and the Cemetery Question,” The Asmonean⁩⁩, Jul 4, 1856; “The Cemetery Question,” The Asmonean, Aug 29, 1856; “Auditor’s Report: Congregation ‘Gates of Prayer,’” The Jewish Messenger, Jun 5, 1857; A Preliminary Historical and Archaeological Assessment of Central Park to the North of the 97th Street Transverse…(Hunter Research, Inc.1990); Shaaray Tefila: A History of its Hundred Years, 1845-1945 (Cohen 1945); National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form—Beth Olam Cemetery, Jan 2016; Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020)