Open House New York: Green-Wood Mausoleums

Open House New York is a wonderful annual weekend event where places that are not usually available to the public are open. (You can read about what I saw in 2010 here, including a lighthouse ship and former mental institution-turned apartment building.) This year, many of the mausoleums in Green-Wood Cemetery were open, and I was able to finally see what was inside those massive structures I’d walked by so many times.

After meeting up with Eszter at the entrance, we got a map pointing to all the open mausoleums (or mausolea, if you prefer, which you very well may since you are reading this blog). We started at the mausoleum of John Anderson, a wealthy tobacconist.

John Anderson was notably involved (perhaps) in the mysterious death of Mary Rogers, who was employed in his store. Rogers, known as the “Beautiful Cigar Girl,” was paid quite well by Anderson due to her looks bringing in customers. One customer even published a poem about her in the New York Herald, and Washington Irving was among her in-store admirers.

In a strange incident on October 5, 1838, Mary Rogers disappeared and her mother claimed she found a suicide note. Yet the next day it was revealed that it had been a hoax and Mary was just visiting a friend in Brooklyn. She soon returned to work at the tobacco store, and one newspaper suggested that her disappearance could have been a publicity stunt organized by Anderson.

On July 28, 1841, Rogers’ body was found floating in the Hudson River. She’d told her fiancé she would be visiting her family and never returned. He would be found dead a few months later, having committed suicide by drinking poison. Rogers’ death consumed the media, with speculation that she had been dumped by an abortionist after a failed procedure, or was a victim of gang violence, or even that she was murdered by John Anderson. Her story was the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” and in the last years of Anderson’s life he claimed that he was being haunted by her ghost. The case of her death was never solved.

We then stopped by the tomb of another scandalous man of the 19th century: Thomas Clark Durant. The financier and railroad promoter instigated the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal of 1872.

During the Civil War, Durant had become quite wealthy off of smuggling contraband cotton from the South. But it was as the Vice President at Union Pacific where he made his greatest fortune.

Durant joined with George Francis Train to create Crédit Mobilier of America, which was one of the first companies to take advantage of new limited liability financial structures in the States, which had made investors only responsible for money paid into a company, not the finances of the company. Durant was in control of Crédit Mobilier to build the railroad track, which meant Union Pacific, where he was Vice-President, was paying him through the second company for the construction.

The many Crédit Mobilier stocks and cash bribes distributed to congressmen also contributed to the scandal. In the fall out, many had their careers irreversibly damaged, including Durant.

Stepping away from all this 19th century scandal, I want to just say how awesome the giant skeleton keys to all the mausoleums were.

Next stop was the spired Chauncey Mausoleum, made in the Gothic/Exotic Revival style. I wonder if the little fountain on the outside ever worked, or was just put there to make it seem ever more like a small church.

The interior of the mausoleum is made of Tuckahoe marble, the same marble used to construct the arch in Washington Square, Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, and numerous other monuments in the city.

I read a story I can’t confirm that the Chauncey Mausoleum is known as the Prisoner’s Vault, because it was constructed by Sing-Sing inmates. A great story, if true, and adding to our narrative of loose 19th century morals.

The Catacombs, the long group mausoleum in a hill, were also open and seemed much less cobwebby than when I’ve visited them in the past. (You may remember my visit there for Obscura Day earlier this year.) The little battery candles lining the hallway still kept the haunting atmosphere, though. I read during this visit that the catacombs were of particular interest to people in the 19th century due to the hysteria over being buried alive. I guess the theory was that someone would hear you screaming from your death sleep more easily if you were above ground.

Continuing on our journey, we found the Charles Morgan Family Mausoleum, which had a staircase entrance like a real home, along with an elaborate flower planter on the right.

Morgan City, Louisiana, is named after Charles Morgan, who worked in shipping and railroads (the standard employment for the mausoleum builders).

Our last stop was my favorite: the Acea Family Mausoleum.  I found it to be the most lovely both inside and out. It sits near the Sylvan Water, one of the glacial ponds in Green-Wood.

Nicolas Salvador Acea was a sugar manufacturer born in Nueva Paz. He had studied medicine at the University of Paris, but troubles at home brought him back to Cuba.

Concerned for his wife’s delicate health, Acea moved his family to New York, but she still died at the age of 30 in 1870. His son unfortunately also died young at 17 and was buried with his mother in Green-Wood. Acea spent the rest of his life as a great benefactor of the city of Cienfuego, and is still celebrated for his philanthropy. Wait… he doesn’t seem corrupt at all! Okay, so not all 19th century wealthy gentlemen who built massive mausoleums were morally troubled or possibly murders.

Different mausoleums were open on Sunday, but I only had time to stop in to see one. I picked the Steinway Mausoleum as it’s the largest in the cemetery and I wanted to see the inside of the massive structure. As you may have guessed, these are the Steinways of the pianos.

Inside, the vaults are towering. I couldn’t help but wonder how they got coffins up there. Some sort of pulley system? I wonder if at funerals you would watch coffins be inserted into vaults or if that was done after the family had departed. I can’t image it being a very somber event if you are using a pulley to swing a coffin in the air. Or maybe everyone is just in a vault below. Okay, I’m thinking too much about this.

Open House New York was an amazing chance to go inside these mausoleums, which I’d only been able to imagine.  I wish I’d been able to see them all over the weekend, but I had other open houses to visit and their photos will be posted here soon!

2 thoughts on “Open House New York: Green-Wood Mausoleums

  1. m says:

    Interesting post allie!

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