Archeologist Elizabeth D. Meade, PhD has created an amazing map of the hundreds of cemeteries and burial grounds, past and present, in NYC. Over 35 such sites can be found in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and Noho, although according to the map, none are still active. Dr. Meade created this map because “Cemeteries are important cultural spaces created by the living to facilitate their interaction with the dead. Though many modern American cultural groups designate cemeteries as sacred ground, cemeteries in New York City have historically been vulnerable to the pressures of urban development, the continued influence of colonial power structures, and other social and economic forces that have resulted in the redevelopment of burial grounds— with or without the disinterment of the human remains within.”
Today we look at three of these former burial grounds, all located in the West Village.
St. Luke’s-in-the-Fields, 479-485 Hudson Street
Starting with the oldest and the farthest west, this little Protestant Episcopal church was built in 1821-22, and originally served as the uptown chapel of Trinity Parish. The cemetery was located beside the church, and was in use from 1821-1882. It closed between 1888 and 1890, and reinternment locations included Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum, Woodlawn, Mount Hope, and other cemeteries. The cemetery area is now St. Luke’s North Garden, home to two 100-year-old Silver Maples, shading what was once part of the church’s burial grounds.
According to the Greenwich Village Historic District designation report, St. Luke’s is the third oldest church building still in use in Manhattan, and the oldest extant in Greenwich Village. It is built of brick in the Federal style, and is very simply massed and adorned, as would befit a church originally set in “the country” and surrounded by relatively open farmland. The builder was James N. Wells.
The story of St. Luke’s begins on October 22, 1820, when a small group of Villagers organized an Episcopal church for their growing community. They named the church after St. Luke, the physician evangelist, in recognition of Greenwich Village’s role as a refuge from the yellow fever epidemics that plagued New York City during the summers.
When the last of the removals were made from St. Luke’s cemetery and vaults in December 1890, the New York Herald described the old vaults:
They are underground rooms, arched and walled with brick. A slab bearing the epitaph is placed over the head of the stone stairway which leads to the surface . . . The coffins were piled one on top of the other in all the vaults. The best preserved coffins were those which had been in the ground for the longest period. Most of them were made of black mahogany. The more modern coffins, with but few exceptions, had turned into dust, while some of those which have been in the ground for over sixty years are as solid as when they were built.
St. Luke’s in the Field has grown and changed with the neighborhood, establishing its thrift shop and gardens, the Go St. Luke’s tutoring program for children in public and parochial schools, standing with the LGBTQ community through the birth of gay rights movements in the Village and the AIDS crisis, supporting homeless people in the neighborhood, and more.
Bedford Street Methodist Episcopal Church Cemetery and Vaults, Bedford Street between Morton and Leroy Streets
When five Methodists formed a new congregation in the carpenter shop of Samuel Walgrove behind his house on Morton Street near Bleecker Street in 1805, Greenwich Village was still a quiet, rural hamlet. Decades later The New York Times remembered, “On Saturday afternoon Walgrove swept his shop and put a number of deal benches in position and the church was ready.”
The congregation was officially organized in 1811 as the Bedford Street Methodist Episcopal Church. The church building was built in 1810, which is the same year the cemetery began operating. The wooden church sat near the southeast corner of Bedford and Morton Streets, with the cemetery beside it. The church was built with two entrances, one for men and the other for women. As the membership grew, the wooden church was enlarged in 1830; but that quickly proved to be insufficient. The congregation continued to use the old building while a substantial Greek Revival structure was erected next door, on the corner. That church was finished in 1840, which was described by Daytonian in Manhattan this way: the “somber Greek temple design forewent free-standing columns and a portico in favor of tight pilasters and a classical, triangular pediment.”
Revival meetings began at the church in 1839 and were a staple of the Bedford Street M. E. Church for decades. It worked with its neightbor, the African M. E. Zion Church nearby at Bleecker and West 10th Streets, for a show of solidarity during and following the Civil War.
Seventh Avenue South was concieved of in 1811, but it was in 1913 that plans were being made for the 1914 construction, beginning at 11th Street. This massive project saw the demolition of buildings and portions of buildings, and in September 1913 the city condemned the church by eminent domain and ordered it abandoned. Two months later, on November 17, the church celebrated its 108th birthday as its final service in that location.
The cemetery was another issue, as the church moved away and made room for Seventh Avenue South. The church’s leadership used the money from the sale of the church to sell the cemetery’s land and reinter those buried there in other locations.
Today, a triangular island occupies a portion of the site where the church and cemetery once stood.
Saint John’s Cemetery, Hudson Street between Morton and Clarkson Streets
This Protestant Episcopal cemetery operated from 1801 until 1896. In 1890, the site was identified by the City as a new public park. The cemetery was a part of St. John’s Chapel of Trinity Church, with an estimated 10,000 people buried there. Following a five-year legal battle with Trinity, the city used the 1887 Small Parks Act to take over the cemetery, with the mandate to create parks in crowded neighborhoods.
According to the New York City Cemetery Project: “St. John’s Cemetery served as a burial ground primarily for the poorer and middle classes, although some prominent individuals and members of well-known families, such as the Schermerhorns, Berrians, Leggetts, and Valentines, were also buried there. The cemetery had been in a dilapidated condition for many years by the time it was taken by the city in 1895, but in the first half of the 19th century it was said to be a pleasant, restful place, and Edgar Allan Poe reportedly roamed the burying ground when he lived nearby in the 1830s.”
Trinity resisted the acquisition by the City, fighting them in court for five years. The City ultimately prevailed, and the embittered church washed their hands of responsibility for the bodies found there, saying it was now the City’s job to arrange for appropriate reinternment. The City seems to have interpreted that charge rather loosely, as they gave families of those buried one year to claim and find a new resting place for their relatives. Of the approximately 10,000 bodies buried there, 250 were claimed and reinterred by their descendants. The rest remained on the site, which became a park in 1897, and those bodies remain there to this day just below the surface.
The park, finished and opened to the public a year later in 1898, is home to sports fields and bocce courts. In 1947, the park was re-named James J. Walker Park, to honor the former Mayor of New York City who lived on St. Luke’s Place facing the park. There is one monument left in the park, which hearkens to the site’s former use. Built in 1834 to honor fallen firemen, it can be seen just through the gates of the park to the right. This monument was preserved and is in the same location it occupied when the park was a cemetery.