Explore Green-Wood: See It Then, See It Now!

Green-Wood Cemetery and Historic Fund staff devotes much of its time and efforts to improving the visitor experience. Programming, maps, exhibitions, apps–we work at making your Green-Wood visit a great one. So, in this spirit, Stacy Locke, our manager of historical collections, and I have been working with Urban Archive, an app of New York City historic places which will allow you to tour Green-Wood’s grounds and see, on your Smartphones, images from our Historic Fund Collections of the very spot where you stand–photographs from 150 years ago!

The idea is a simple one: use the great stereoview images of Green-Wood from our Historic Fund Collections to allow visitors, with the Urban Archive app on their phones, to wander the grounds and have a then-and-now experience. You will be able to walk the grounds at your leisure–and see what the spot where you stand looked like way back 150 years ago. We have sent images and text off to the tech staff at Urban Archive; they will be cropping the photos down to a single image and adding the text we have provided to inform visitors as to what they are seeing. This will be an exciting new way for you to enjoy, and explore, Green-Wood!

Just some background. In the early 1980s, I began collecting stereoviews–those side-by-side photographs on card stock that, when looked at through a special viewer appear to be in 3D–of New York City. I kept coming across views of some place called “Green-Wood Cemetery”–and, because those views were inexpensive and nicely photographed, and I had long been fascinated by cemeteries, I started to collect them also. Here’s an example:

A stereoview of Green-Wood Cemetery. Note that the images are not identical–more of the gravestone in the lower left of each image is visible in the left image than in the right one. These images were made with two lenses, side by side, placed at a distance the same as the distance between a typical person’s eyes, in order to achieve a 3D effect when looked at in a special viewer. They were tremendously popular from about 1860 until about 1920.

Over the years I have amassed a collection of almost one thousand views of Green-Wood’s grounds–dating primarily from about 1860 to 1900–that are now a part of the Green-Wood Historic Fund Collections.

Over the years, I, like many others, have been fascinated by “then and now” books. Here’s what the northwest corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue looked like in 1870; here’s what it looks like today. But there was always a problem with such books, particularly of Manhattan: typically, nothing had survived from the “then” photograph. That is not the case at Green-Wood–which makes our “then and now” pairs all the more fascinating. Certainly some monuments and mausolea at Green-Wood have not survived over a century and a half of exposure, but, remarkably, much is unchanged. Scenes from 1860 are recognizable in 2017. A photograph taken in 1870 may have an urn, a cross, an obelisk, and more, that survive today. How about the bed of that road–has it moved at all? Is this the right spot? Does that monument, photographed in 1872, still stand? How does it look today in comparison to how it looked then? How have the plantings changed? Fewer weeping willows? More pines back then? What has acid rain done to those marble carvings?

Here are a few then and now images of Green-Wood:

The Frost Lot, circa 1865, in a hand-colored view. Note that two mausolea are visible at right, one partially hidden behind a bush, another above it on a knoll; the closest one is no longer there (see below) but the one in the distance, up on the hill in the break of trees– is still there–though hidden by trees now from this angle.
The Frost Lot today. Note that, though the fine iron fence is gone, several of the white marble stones in the early photograph are still there, and several granite gravestones have been added.

And here’s another rich example:

As you can see, this image, circa 1870, it is labelled “Meadow Hill.” That’s a very helpful clue when you are trying to locate a spot in an almost-500-acre space!

So, I checked early Green-Wood maps for a place called Meadow Hill. Here’s the detail of a map, dating from the 1846 edition of Green-Wood’s first history:

In this detail of an 1846 map of Green-Wood, Meadow Hill appears just a bit more than half way up it, just to the left of the roads shown. Further examination of Green-Wood maps reveals that today’s Meadow Avenue is near where Meadow Hill was.

And here is the same location, today:

The same spot, today. It is in section 105, along Meadow Avenue, on the left side of the road as you walk south from the Main Gates towards the Fort Hamilton Parkway Entrance. That’s Nut Path intersecting with Meadow Avenue.

What is remarkable here is that–though the images appear, upon quick examination, to be quite different, Nut Path is just where it should be, and so many of the monuments in the early photo survive. The obelisk at right is still there. The shorter obelisk at left has lost the urn that topped it, but is still there. And, looking closely, you can see in the old image a cross just to the left of Nut Path (where it turns to the right), a low pink granite monument just to the right of that cross, and even (with magnification) an urn in the left distance (painted white in the early photo; painted black today and behind trees from this viewpoint).

Here’s a good example of how marble, a favorite material of sculptors because it was soft enough to carve easily, has deteriorated over time:

A wonderful example of 19th-century marble carving, in all its early glory, circa 1860.

When I saw this view, I thought I might know where it was–perhaps in section 102. So I went out to the lot I had in mind–but the somewhat-similar monument I saw was not the right one. While I was there, I looked off into the distance–and there were the monuments I was looking for, right along Central Avenue, where sections 102 and 96 meet. And here they are today:

The same monuments, today. Note that the head of the child has been broken off, likely by a falling tree branch. While the early photograph shows monuments that would have been quite prominent, I have passed by this spot many times without noticing these. They could use a good cleaning; hopefully that will be done shortly by our restoration team.

Update: This blog post went up on Thursday, October 19. The next day I e-mailed Neela Wickremesinghe, Green-Wood’s fulltime Manager of Restoration and Preservation. I called these monuments to her attention and asking if she might be able to use Green-Wood’s new cutting-edge cleaning machine on them when she had some free time (and, as you can imagine, Neela is dealing with quite a queue of mausolea and monuments to be repaired and/or cleaned, and has little “free time”). Well, I must say I was shocked when Neela got back to me just a few hours later, informing me that she had put her Restoration Team–Gustavo Padilla and Felix Hernandez–to work on this. Here’s the cleaning in progress:

Felix Hernandez of Green-Wood’s Restoration Team cleaning 150 years of dirt off these monuments.

And here are the cleaned monuments:

Cleaned up! Certainly not pristine, but much better.

And while they were there, they also cleaned several nearby marble monuments. Mission accomplished!

Some of the images in our collections were pretty easy to locate. Here’s one:

The Dunley Monument, soon after its placement on the grounds. This stereoview publisher was particularly helpful, giving us section, avenue, and the name of the lot owner. That really helps! Note the blackening of the letters here, to make the inscription “pop.”
The Dunley Monument today. The resurrectionist and fraternal symbols at top survive, but have lost the crispness of their carving. The inscriptions now are very difficult to read.

Here’s one of my favorite old views of Green-Wood:

A great image, circa 1865, of Green-Wood workers on the grounds.

These are the men who maintained the grounds, gathered for a photograph, holding their tools, with what looks like a supervisor, in dark suit, seated on the fence (second man from right). I had long assumed that this photograph, given the hill in the background, had been taken along the last of the hills of the terminal moraine, perhaps along Cypress Avenue in section 139 or 140. Examining it more closely, with a 10x magnifier, I was able to make out the name on the large marble gravestone behind the man 4th from the left: HILTON. A bit of further research puts this view in section 8, along what is now lot 44609 (but back 150 years ago was a road). Here’s today’s view of the same spot:

The Hilton Lot today. Note the marble gravestone peeking out from behind the female-topped monument–that is the same marble that appears in the old photo. Note how much granite has been added to this lot since that photo was taken in 1865 or so. Like everywhere else, there are fashions at cemeteries: brownstone was in, then marble, then a bit of cast zinc and much granite. Note the large granite obelisk just left of center–in also appears in the early photograph.

Some of these historic images posed real challenges in finding their locations. Here’s a particularly interesting example:

The full stereoview. Note these images are slightly different–in the image at left, the tree at farthest left is clearly visible, but  it is barely seen at the far left edge of the right image. Further, the tree trunk that appears at the right of the right image is not seen at all in the left image. Stereoviews were photographed using two lenses, set as far apart as the typical human’s eyes–seen through a stereoviewer, which merges the views into one, they appear as 3D.
The half-stereoview of this same view. Note that, if you follow the road into the distance, then look above the tree line, you can see the waters of New York Harbor.

Now, looking at this image, I thought I recognized the Green-Wood’s Fireman’s Monument as the large monument at the right, topped by a figure that I thought was a fireman. So I went out to where the Fireman’s Monument is located and that seemed to be a match. There were the three decorative bands on the shaft; there was the figure of a fireman, atop the monument, pointing into the distance. Here’s the Fireman’s Monument, in a photograph that I took as I tried to solve the mystery of exactly where this view, circa 1865, had been taken:

The Fireman’s Monument.

The next step was to find the large monument at the left side of the old image–the one topped by a shrouded urn. So I walked around the area near the Fireman’s Monument, and there it was!

Now, if you look carefully at the old half-stereoview above, you will see that there is a mausoleum in the right distance. So I walked up past the Fireman’s Monument–and there was indeed a mausoleum in the distance.

But there were still a few problems. Something didn’t seem quite right. There is one hard and fast rule for determining the location of old photographs: if one thing is wrong, then you are in the wrong place. First of all, I had assumed that the two large monuments in the stereoview appeared to be closer together than they seemed when I was out on the grounds because a telephoto lens had likely been used in the early photograph and it had compressed the distance, fooling the eye. But, as I looked again, the monument at left seemed to be turned in a way that was not possible if indeed that was the Fireman’s Monument in that photo. Then it dawned on me: what about that road in the stereoview? There was no such road to the left of the Fireman’s Monument. Had the road been removed? I thought that was unlikely. I considered this matter for a few days, then realized that that monument with the figure atop it was not the Fireman’s Monument at all. Examination of the old photograph with a magnifier revealed that the figure atop the monument was not a fireman pointing; rather, what appeared to be an arm was in fact a tree branch. Standing behind the monument that appears at the left of the old image–the one with the shrouded urn on its top–I realized there was a monument to its right that looked very similar to the Fireman’s Monument. There it was! And there was Spruce Avenue–running and curving just as it had circa 1865 (you can see Spruce Avenue between the two large monuments in the half-stereoview). And, I knew, in the distance down Spruce Avenue, at its intersection with Tulip Avenue (but now hidden from view by a tree) was the Delaplaine Mausoleum that is seen in the distance in the stereoview–and still stands there today.

The same spot, today. Note the Fireman’s Monument at far right, at the crest of the hill. The figure that originally stood atop the second large monument from the left has disappeared.

Looking closely, I realized I still had a problem. Look again at the half-stereoview–notice that there are urns atop the base of the second large monument from the left (the one on which a figure stood) on each of its corners. But, as you will see above, those urns are not there today. Was I wrong about the location? Well, I walked over to the monument and saw this on one of its corners where the urns should have been:

Notice that the place where the urn would have been shows the outline of  the base of that urn.

So, all the mysteries of this view were solved. The location of the photograph, taken just over 150 years ago, is set: near the intersection of Spruce and Orchard Avenues, in section 2. Much of what appears in the old photograph is still there, 150 years later!

Several hundred views of Green-Wood should be up on Urban Archive in the next few weeks. We plan to add street views of Manhattan and Brooklyn from our collections to the app soon–those will allow you to walk New York City’s streets and see images of the Jerome Mansion (the home of the grandparents of Winston Churchill), Claflin’s Warehouse, the Roosevelt Family home, and much more, all of which have ties to Green-Wood. Get ready to explore Green-Wood and the streets of New York!

*     *     *

Thanks to Jim Lambert, volunteer extraordinaire, for his great work on this.



1 thought on “Explore Green-Wood: See It Then, See It Now!”

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.