Category Archives: the bronx

Moonlight and Mausoleums at Woodlawn Cemetery

So are you getting into the Halloween spirit? If you know me, or even glance at this blog once in a while, you know that I appreciate the creepy aspects of our cities pretty much year round, but October is always a good excuse for some extra dark exploring. I just gave a tour at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx last weekend for Atlas Obscura‘s Obscura Society, but recently I went on one of Woodlawn’s own tours that was part of Open House New York. (The same weekend of access to places usually off limits that brought me to the TWA Flight Center.)

The title of the tour was “Moonlight and Mausoleums” and it took place just after the sun went down. We went inside several of the more stunning mausoleums (or mausolea? hmmm), only lit by our flashlights. Or flashlight apps for those of us who forgot and had to use our iPhones. It was an incredible experience just to walk around the grounds at night; it sort of felt like we were on a really weird camping trip. Alas, no spending the night. Actually, I’m okay with that. As much as I enjoy the history of cemeteries, it’s best to leaving the sleeping there to those in eternal rest.

Photography was tricky, but here are some that turned out:

The Belmont Mausoleum (in the above three pictures) was created as a duplicate of the St. Hubert Chapel in Amboise, France, which is supposedly where Leonardo DaVinci is buried, and holds the tombs of Alva and Oliver Belmont (of the Belmont Stakes).

This is the relatively recent mausoleum of Cecila Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, who passed away in 2003.

The Everard mausoleum holds the namesake of the notorious Everard Baths.

The tour ended at the gorgeous Harbeck Mausoleum, one of the most ornate mausoleums in the cemetery. It even includes a pipe organ and electricity (although it was never hooked up, as the family apparently didn’t realize that the cemetery wouldn’t have any electric wires going amongst the graves for them to connect to. Solar power someday?)

Enjoy your Halloween weekend!

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One-Year Anniversary Adventure :: Van Cortlandt House

Van Cortlandt House

Here is part two of my one-year anniversary adventure, which started with a visit to Woodlawn Cemetery. From there, we walked over to the Van Cortlandt House, the oldest building in The Bronx. It was built in 1748 and is located in Van Cortlandt Park, which used to be the estate of the home.  We explored the open rooms of the house, with my favorite being the “unfinished chamber” in the attic, cluttered with old chairs and dust.

George Washington was here?

It wasn’t the most thrilling old house I’ve visited (no secret passageways or hidden rooms), and one of the room descriptions spent about 70% of its words on one clock. However, it has some interesting associations with the Revolutionary War. Lafayette, Rochambeau, and George Washington all used the house during that time. When it was behind British lines, it was occupied as a headquarters for General Howe.

Window to the park.

The most interesting thing about old homes in New York is their staying power. This city changes so quickly as to have corners unrecognizable from what they were just a decade ago (or less). So much has sprung up in The Bronx around what used to be the Van Cortlandt House”s plantation. Elsewhere in New York, 19th century houses are wedged in the shadow of new severe glass buildings. It’s not exactly like Rome where it looks like multiple time periods have fallen on top of each other, but there are still areas that feel like that. Or maybe not areas, more like moments.

The last stop on my one-year anniversary adventure is next!

One-Year Anniversary Adventure :: Woodlawn Cemetery

My one-year anniversary of living in New York was on August 15. To celebrate that achievement, I went on an adventure to new places with Patty and Eszter. And I mean achievement, because I would be lying if I said living here was easy, and that there weren’t times when I thought I should just get a cab to the airport. But now it has been over a year and I’m employed, have a great apartment, have many wonderful friends, and am planning on staying for at least another year. I can’t believe all the awesome things I got to do in my first year and am looking forward to whatever the next year holds. I think I started it out right with quite the adventure. In fact, it was such an adventure that I am going to break it into three posts.

We first took the train up to the Bronx. Or about four trains, I should say. I really hope no one has to regularly commute from south Brooklyn to north Bronx, because that is not an easy transit journey. We finally took the 4 train all the way to the last stop in Woodlawn. It was a nice ride because it’s an elevated line and, since it was my first visit to The Bronx, I got to see some of it from the windows.

It was a very short walk from the Woodlawn Station to Woodlawn Cemetery, which is full of beautiful and massive mausoleums decorated with amazing sculptures and Tiffany stained glass. Like Green-Wood Cemetery in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, Woodlawn was designed as a rural cemetery with winding paths through hills covered in trees, meant to be a park as much as a burial ground. Woodlawn opened in 1863 and has about 300,000 interments on its 300 acres, so a little smaller than Green-Wood, but much less crowded.

The artistry that went into all the mausoleums was really amazing (even if the best epitaph went to the less sightly HEY grave above). These tombs held the families of a lot of recognizable names, like La Guardia, Julliard, Woolworth, Pulitzer, Macy, and Straus. I read that the Harbeck Mausoleum actually has its own pipe organ and the Belmont Mausoleum is a replica of a chapel designed by Leonardo da Vinci that I visited in Amboise, France.

The Woolworth Mausoleum was built like an Egyptian tomb, with guarding claw-handed sphinxes and a metal door featuring Osiris. It was designed by John Russell Pope, who was the architect for the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC.

Every path we took was lined with huge Roman temples, ornate columns and metal doors, and silence. We saw only a few other wandering visitors. Those who complain of not having any peace in New York City just need to visit its cemeteries. The location of Woodlawn was actually selected to be close to Manhattan and convenient for family burials, yet removed enough to be a serene oasis.

Many of the tombs have beautiful stained glass, some of which we could glimpse through the doors. Some of it was done by Tiffany Studios, although without any guide, we just had to guess at which ones.

It was a slightly overcast day, so the stained glass had a nice gentle light to it (and that also meant it was actually cool outside instead of insufferably hot). Most of the windows were installed above small altars.

One oddly had a taxidermy bird under a bell jar. I can only speculate why it was there. A deceased pet? The grave of an ornithologist? Woodlawn Cemetery is a haven for living birds, with over 120 species spotted on its grounds. I spotted some songbirds in the trees and was able to hear others as we walked around.

There also was this beautiful door with panels depicting the different seasons (I assume), this one showing an evergreen tree with fluttering metal birds. Among its many growing trees, Woodlawn has five of New York’s “Great Trees,” which are trees selected for preservation due to their “unusual size, species, form, or historical association.”

We did see this stone tree, with its branches cut off and names carved into the stubs. There were log-shaped gravestones sitting around it. Like the family tree has been hacked off into firewood. One of the more  unsettling graves I’ve seen in a long time.

This rustic grave had some interesting stick letters with a high level of drama.

There are 20 miles of trails in Woodlawn, so we didn’t make it down them all, but we covered a lot of ground. Luckily, there are free maps at the entrance so we were able to not get lost. There was also a dotted line painted on the road that went down the center of the cemetery, sort of like a line through a tunnel underground to keep from being lost forever to the netherworld.

Which might be possible with this ominous-looking, fork-tailed statue. Further investigation showed it was actually the tip of an anchor, but still it’s a little eerie to see that up among the branches of a tree.

I was most excited to visit Herman Melville’s grave (author of Moby-Dick). Melville is said to have designed his own grave, which is decorated with a blank scroll. Why he chose that is something of a mystery, perhaps a cynical comment on the slow reception of his writing or a reflection of the tragedy that haunted the end of his life.

Notes are left under stones and shells on top of his grave (I also left a note).  One said: “Herman, thanks for making such an inspiring novel.” Another had a drawing of a whale.

From Woodlawn Cemetery, we walked to the Van Cortlandt House, also in The Bronx. That post will be coming soon!