Tag Archives: East New York

New Lots Cemetery

An 1886 map of New Lots shows the old cemetery next to the school of the north side of New Lots Ave, and the new cemetery next to the church on the south side of New Lots Ave

When the historic town of Flatbush became overcrowded with Dutch farmers in the 1670s, a consortium of settlers were granted permission to set up new plantations on land east of Flatbush in what is now the East New York section of Brooklyn. The new community, known as New Lots, established a burial ground on common lands situated on the south side of today’s New Lots Avenue and Barbey Street, extending north past Livonia Avenue.

By the early 19th century, New Lots’ farmers had tired of traveling to Flatbush to attend church, and in 1823 built their own Dutch Reformed Church on the south side of New Lots Avenue, opposite the cemetery where generations of Van Siclens, Rapeljes, Vanderveers, Schencks and other early families had been laid to rest. Around this same time, they erected a school just west of the cemetery, on the common lands on the north side of New Lots Avenue. Soon needing to expand their burial grounds, in the 1840s they established a new cemetery—owned and managed by the lot holders—on land adjoining the Reformed Church. Many descendants of the old families moved their dead from the original cemetery to family lots in the new cemetery. The original cemetery gradually feel into disuse and the remaining graves were largely abandoned; by the end of the 19th century, the site was commonly known to locals as the “old slave cemetery.”

A plaque commemorating New Lots’ historic African American community and its burial ground is mounted at 683 Barbey Street (Mary French)

Most of the original Dutch settlers utilized enslaved people on their farms. The population of New Lots in the 17th and 18th century is unknown, but the 1820 census enumerated 338 whites and 91 blacks in New Lots and half of the town’s 62 families owned slaves. Although the black population of New Lots remained relatively small until the 20th century, African Americans have been a critical part of the development of New Lots since colonial times. When the original burial ground was established, a clearly distinguished portion of the parcel—the section at the north end, near Livonia Avenue—was set aside for New Lots’ black community. The African American community continued to use this burial ground throughout the 19th century. Articles from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the 1880s and 1890s note, “once in a great while there is a colored person interred in the back part of the [old New Lots Cemetery] and “there is no care taken of the place except in the negro part.”

This 1900 photo provides a view towards the northwest of the Old New Lots Cemetery, with the corner of P.S. 72 visible. A broken tombstone lies across the path (BDE)

By the turn of the century, New Lots had evolved from a rural farming district to the 26th Ward of the City of New York. With its broken down fences, overturned headstones and generally dilapidated appearance, the old cemetery—containing the African burial ground as well as many burials of white community members that had never been moved to the new cemetery—was considered an eyesore and nuisance to the area’s residents. The new, large Public School 72 now stood next to the graveyard, erected in 1888 by the Board of Education to replace the town’s old school. A local resident decried the situation in an 1899 letter to the Daily Eagle, remarking, “a desecrated cemetery alongside of one of the best and largest public schools in Brooklyn is not a very pleasing spectacle, and it is to be hoped some action will soon be taken by the city government toward remedying the evil.”

A 1922 view of tombstones in the Old New Lots Cemetery, looking northwest towards Livonia Ave and the elevated subway tracks (NYHS)

After years of community agitation and complaints, in the early 1920s the old cemetery was taken over by the school for use as a playground. Although public officials announced their intentions to remove the remaining burials on the site—including at a 1908 meeting of the New Lots Board of Trade, where President Jacob Hessel stated, “it matters not that these bones are but the remainder of slaves; slaves they were, but they were also part of New Lots’ history, and as such we owe them respect”—there is no evidence removals occurred at the time the playground was established.

Street sign on Livonia Ave commemorating the African burial ground. Part of the New Hope Family Worship Center can be seen beneath the train tracks; this building was erected on the northernmost section of the old cemetery in 1954 (Mary French)

In the mid-1950s, the old burial ground site was redeveloped—P.S. 72 was demolished, replaced with a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and the school playground was converted into a public park, (Schenck Playground), both of which still stand at the site today. A shirt-pleating plant was built on the northernmost section of the old cemetery site, north of Livonia Avenue—in 2000, this building was converted into New Hope Family Worship Center. In 2017, fragments of human bone, pieces of tombstones, and other evidence of the old cemetery were located during archaeological tests conducted at Schenck Playground prior to planned improvements at the site, suggesting disturbed and intact burials may exist beneath the park. In 2019, the playground was renamed Sankofa Park in honor of the African burial ground that was part of the old cemetery.

On the south side of New Lots Avenue, the 200-year-old Dutch Reformed Church survives and, next to it, the “new” New Lots Cemetery that has been in use since the 1840s. The cemetery is still owned by the New Lots Cemetery Association, composed of descendants of New Lots’ early Dutch settlers.

Rear view of New Lots Reformed Church (built 1832) and the New Lots Cemetery (established in 1840s), as seen west from Jerome street, 1934 (NYPL)
View of New Lots Cemetery, December 2010 (Mary French)
A 2018 aerial view showing the present New Lots Cemetery and the approximate boundaries of the Old New Lots Cemetery (indicated in red)

View more photos of New Lots Cemetery

Sources: Robinson’s 1886 Atlas of the City of Brooklyn, Pl 40;“An Old Farmer’s Talk,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 19, 1886; “An Old Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 31, 1891; “A Neglected Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 5, 1899; “The Old Dutch Cemetery in East New York,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 5, 1900; “Cemetery Gets Permission,”  Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 24, 1903; “Canine Cops in New Lots,” The Chat [Brooklyn], Nov 7, 1908; “New Lots Cemetery Ass’n Elects Rapelje as Head,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 11, 1923; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 105; Cemetery Inscriptions from New Lotts Burying Ground (Frost 1913); Phase IA Archeological Literature Review and Fieldwork Plan, Schenck Playground (Hartgen Archeological Associates 2016); Phase IB Archeological Field Reconnaissance, Schenck Playground (Hartgen Archeological Associates 2018); “Celebration and Re-interment of Our Ancestors,” Amsterdam News, Aug 1, 2019

Maimonides Cemetery & Mount Hope Cemetery

Mausoleums in Mount Hope Cemetery, April 2018 (Mary French)

“This Is Not Cypress Hills Cemetery” reads a sign immediately inside the gate at Maimonides Cemetery in Brooklyn. It’s easy to understand why disoriented visitors stumble into Maimonides by accident—its gate is located a short distance eastward of the entrance to the large, nondenominational Cypress Hills Cemetery on Jamaica Avenue and it, along with the adjacent Mount Hope Cemetery, is nestled into a notch of land cut along Cypress Hills’ southeast border. These two small cemeteries are timeworn today—especially their grand entrance buildings, which are targets of graffiti and vandalism— but in the late 19th-early 20th century, Maimonides and Mount Hope were among the fashionable burial grounds of New York’s Jewish community.

A 1905 map showing Maimionides and Mount Hope cemeteries, situated along Jamaica Ave and the border of Cypress Hills Cemetery

Maimonides Benevolent Society was formed in 1853 by a group of “wealthy Hebrews of New York City” to assist one another in times of illness and difficulty and to look after the needs of their community. Soon after this mutual aid society was organized, a plot in Cypress Hills Cemetery was purchased as a burial ground for its members. When this plot became full, they purchased, in 1879, 8 acres of land adjoining Cypress Hills to establish a new cemetery for the association as well as for other Jewish societies and families. The red-brick gatehouse on Jamaica Avenue was built in 1892 and by 1900 about 1,700 bodies had been interred in Maimonides’ grounds. To meet the need for more burial space, Maimonides Benevolent Society eventually purchased more land in Elmont on Long Island and continues to operate both cemeteries today. Maimonides Cemetery in Brooklyn is notable as the burial place of two pioneering motion picture executives—Marcus Loew, founder of the Loew’s theatre chain and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios; and Joseph Schenck, an early president of United Artists and co-founder of Twentieth Century Pictures, which later became 20th Century Fox.

An 1880 advertisement for Maimonides Cemetery from one of the city’s Jewish newspapers.

In 1881, members of several other Jewish fraternities and societies—including the Free Sons of Israel and Phoenix Widows’ and Orphans’ Aid Society—that had also outgrown their earlier burial grounds at Cypress Hills and elsewhere, formed Mount Hope Cemetery Association and purchased 12 acres of land immediately east of Maimonides Cemetery to establish a new cemetery. Like Maimonides, they sold plots to Jewish societies and families, and by 1900 3,000 individuals were interred here. The cemetery’s administration building, which replaced an earlier gatehouse constructed when the cemetery was established in 1881, was recognized by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce’s building awards competition when it was built in 1931. Although tattered and covered with graffiti now, this elegant Art Deco structure, and Mount Hope’s beautifully intricate ironwork entrance gates, are gems hidden in the chaotic surroundings of Jamaica Avenue.

The gatehouse at Maimonides Cemetery, April 2018 (Mary French)
A view of Maimonides Cemetery, Jan 2016 (Mary French)
The entrance building at Mount Hope Cemetery, April 2018 (Mary French)
A view of Mount Hope Cemetery, Jan 2016 (Mary French)
An aerial view of Maimonides and Mount Hope cemeteries, 2012

View more photos of Maimonides and Mount Hope cemeteries.

Sources: Hyde’s 1905 Atlas of the Borough of Queens Vol. 4 Pl. 10; “Maimonides Cemetery—A New Hebrew Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Oct 6 1879; [Classified Ad], The Jewish Messenger July 30 1880; “Local News—Maimonides Benevolent Society,” The Jewish Messenger Sep 16 1892; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901), 52, 55-56; Maimonides Cemeteries; “The City—Mount Hope Cemetery,” The American Hebrew Sept 2 1881; “Local News—A New Cemetery,” The Jewish Messenger Sept 16 1881; “Chamber Cites Boro Buildings Erected in 1931,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Feb 21 1932; NYCityMap

Salem Fields Cemetery

Mausoleums line the winding paths at Salem Fields Cemetery.
Mausoleums line the winding paths at Salem Fields Cemetery. (Mary French)

Salem Fields cemetery was founded in 1851 by Manhattan’s Congregation Emanu-El and became the preeminent Jewish burial ground of late 19th-early 20th century New York. Emanu-El, New York’s City’s first Reform congregation, was established in 1845 by assimilated, wealthy German Jews and their prosperity is displayed in their burial grounds. Covering 45 acres in the Cypress Hills area at the Brooklyn-Queens border, the cemetery’s undulating landscape features winding paths lined with the grand mausoleums and monuments of upper-class families such as the Warburgs, Seligmans, Guggenheims, Lewisohns, and Loebs.

Salem Fields contains about 80,000 interments.  In addition to the family plots and individual graves for Emanu-El’s members, several smaller congregations and benevolent societies also have burial grounds at Salem Fields.  The cemetery’s massive stone entryway at the corner of Cypress Hills Street and Jamaica Avenue, which includes offices and a small chapel, was added in 1915.

The richness of Salem Fields’ family crypts has tempted graveyard bandits to its grounds on a number of occasions.  In 1976, thieves stole nine bronze doors from mausoleums in the cemetery, cut them into sections, and sold them to junk dealers for $250 per foot.  At least half a dozen Tiffany windows have also been stolen from Salem Fields, the most notorious case occurring in the 1990s, when Alastair Duncan, an art dealer and one of the world’s leading experts on Tiffany stained glass, was convicted of conspiring in the theft of a window from the Glaser-Bernheim mausoleum.  Duncan sold the nine-foot-tall, 500-pound window to a Japanese collector for $220,000.

The Guggenheim mausoleum at Salem Fields Cemetery. Designed by architect Henry Beaumont Herts, it is shaped like the Tower of Winds in Athens. (Mary French)
Location of Salem Fields Cemetery in East New York, Brooklyn. A small portion of the property crosses over into Queens (OpenStreetMap)
The main entrance to Salem Fields Cemetery, at the corner of Jamaica Ave and Cypress Hills St (Wikipedia).
The main entrance to Salem Fields Cemetery, at the corner of Jamaica Ave and Cypress Hills St (Wikipedia).

View more photos of Salem Fields Cemetery.

Sources: “Salem Fields Cemetery,” New York Times, Sept 3, 1877; “$70,000 Gateway and Chapel Planned by Temple Emanu-El,” New York Times, Sept 5, 1915; The Rise and Progress of Reform Judaism . . . 201-205 (Myer Stern, 1895); “Third Man Seized in Cemetery Theft,” Long Island Press, Sept 2, 1976; “A Passion for Graveyard Art That Took a Criminal Turn,” New York Times, Sept 5, 1999; “A Tiffany Window Is Stolen at Cemetery,” New York Times March 19, 1997; “E. New York Cemetery Vandal Hunted,” New York Daily News, July 10, 2002; The Jewish Contribution to Modern Architecture, 1830-1930 426-427 (Bedoire 2006); Riker’s 1852 Map of Newtown; NYC GIS; OpenStreetMap

Fourth Shearith Israel Cemetery / Beth Olam Cemetery

The Calvert Vaux chapel at Beth Olom.
The Calvert Vaux chapel at Beth Olam. (Mary French)

Following the closure of its First, Second and Third cemeteries in Manhattan during the first half of the 19th century, in 1851 Congregation Shearith Israel established a seven-acre cemetery in the Cypress Hills area that straddles the Brooklyn-Queens border.  The Fourth Shearith Israel Cemetery is one of three burial grounds that form Beth Olam Cemetery, which is co-owned by Shearith Israel along with two other Manhattan synagogues.  B’nai Jeshurun, NYC’s second-oldest Jewish congregation, founded in 1825 by a faction that seceded from Shearith Israel, has a four-acre burial ground within Beth Olam; Shaaray Tefila, an offspring of B’nai Jeshurun that formed in 1845, has two acres.  Beth Olam is located on the west side of Cypress Hills Street, just south of Jackie Robinson Parkway, in the Ridgewood-East New York neighborhoods. About half the property lies in Queens and the other half in Brooklyn.

Several thousand members of Shearith Israel, B’nai Jeshurun, and Shaaray Tefila are interred at Beth Olam, including a number of the congregations’ spiritual leaders. Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1932-1938, is buried in the Shearith Israel cemetery at Beth Olam, as is his uncle and namesake, Benjamin Nathan, a vice president of the New York Stock Exchange whose 1870 murder remains one of the city’s famous unsolved crimes.  Poet Emma Lazarus, whose sonnet “The New Colossus” is inscribed at the base of The Statue of Liberty, is also interred at Beth Olam. The chapel near the entrance to the Shearith Israel section at Beth Olam is the work of Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park. Commissioned in 1882, the small, red brick chapel is the only religious building that Vaux is known to have built.

Location of Beth Olam Cemetery, which includes the Fourth Shearith Israel cemetery and burial grounds of B’nai Jeshurun and Shaaray Tefila (OpenStreetMap)
The divisions of Beth Olam Cemetery in Queens (top) and Brooklyn (bottom), 1905 (Hyde 1905)
Entrance to the Fourth Shearith Israel Cemetery at Beth Olam. (Mary French)

View more photos of Beth Olam Cemetery

Sources: Ullitz’s 1898-99 Atlas of the Brooklyn Borough…Vol. 1, Pl. 44; Hyde’s 1903 Atlas of the Borough of Queens Vol. 2, Pl. 29; Hyde’s 1905 Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn Vol. 4, Pl. 10; Portraits Etched in Stone 141-142 (de Sola Pool, 1952); “Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (1870-1938),” Judicial Notice 6, Jan 2009, 3-18; “The Criminal Record: The Nathan Murder,” New York Herald Tribune, Aug. 2, 1870; Country, Park & City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux 285 (Francis R. Kowsky 2003); AIA Guide to New York City 779 (White et al 2010); NYCityMap; OpenStreetMap