Monday, October 24, 2005

Calvert Vaux in repose at Montrepose.
Photo by Mark Thorn.

Grave Matters

From "Wake the Echoes," Kingston Times, October 20, 2005:
The Rondout Courier of May 24, 1850 contains a modest and to modern eyes refreshingly low-key advertisement for a general store — no double-cents-off, no two-for-one promotion, no seasonal special, no can-can fest. “NEW ARRIVAL,” it reads, “E. SUYDAM would inform his friends and the public generally that he has just received a fresh supply of Groceries and a good amount of Crockery, to which he calls particular attention.”

Life was different in 1850: it may have been slower, gentler. But Death was neither slow nor gentle, only nearer, on the printed page as in everyday things. A mere two inches up from Suydam’s notice, in the same column, perched above the “Fashion Reports” and “Summer Mail Arrangements,” are the death announcements of the past week in Kingston and Rondout (then two separate villages) and a posting of the newly created Montrepose Cemetery Association, now legally organized and open for public inspection. “The area of Montrepose, deducting for roads, paths, shrubbery, &c., leaves space for 1000 lots of 600 square feet each. The price of the lots is now at the low rate of $12 each,” and of that only half need be paid up front.

Groceries, crockery, burial grounds, one was sold as matter-of-factly as another. The undulating Montrepose grounds formed a beautiful landscape — “peculiarly adapted to the formation of a rural cemetery,” wrote the Courier’s editor, “as it is of a varied surface” — that was inspiring to traverse and not the least bit morbid or scary. Death casts no shadow here.

Among the prominent Kingston and Rondout denizens residing peacefully here today are architect Calvert Vaux and his accomplished sons Bowyer and Downing, all related by marriage to painters Jervis McEntee and his cousin Julia McEntee Dillon; painter Joseph Tubby and illustrator Anton Otto Fischer; poet Henry Abbey; and industrialists Thomas Cornell and his son-in-law Samuel Coykendall, whose expansive family plot is marked by an imposing pergola, built-in seats, a winding walkway, and a curving stone facade. Patent-medicine king David Kennedy has a mausoleum upon a hillock. (Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary, defines mausoleum as “the final and funniest folly of the rich.”)

There is even a memorial to Kingston’s founder and Lord of the Manor of Fox Hall, Thomas Chambers, who had been buried on his land along the Strand in 1694 but was re-interred at Montrepose in the year of its founding. Vaux and McEntee have been the subjects of previous “Wake the Echoes” columns — December 23, 2004 and January 13, 2005, respectively — and certainly all the others named above will have their own space here as well as in Montrepose, Providence and my editors permitting.

Montrepose was an outgrowth of the rural cemetery movement that swept the country after the creation of Mt. Auburn in the Boston area in 1831 and Green-Wood in Brooklyn seven years later. Pleasure grounds for the living as well as harmonious lodging for the remains of the departed, the sylvan settings presaged the public parks and ball fields that in the latter half of the century provided a bit of countryside to urban toilers.

But make no mistake about it: while cemeteries may be good for contemplative strolling or even, a century ago, picnicking, what they are truly about is death. The inspiration for the rural cemetery was not only beauty but also the beast: pestilence and epidemic, borne by water or air. Headlines today radiate fear of avian flu (which virologists term H5N1) reaching our shores from Asia. Often these stories employ chilling reference to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 that is said to have claimed 50 million lives worldwide. HN51 has already moved beyond chickens, ducks, and the occasional person who handles them, to cats — killing tigers at the Bangkok zoo — and pigs, which in the past have been intermediary carriers of flu from birds to humans.

The fear of exogenous, invisible, cargo-hold-borne disease hit home locally with the cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1849, both of which ravaged the port of Rondout. New York City, similarly afflicted in those plague years, by mid-century banned further burials, diverted streams, drained ponds, and plowed under or built over graveyards, all in the name of sanitation and progress though often enough the motive was profit, too.

The cholera pandemic of 1832 was not America’s first instance of virulent disease. There had been outbreaks of measles in Boston in 1657 and 1687; influenza throughout the colonies as early as 1732; smallpox in South Carolina in 1738; and the dreaded yellow fever, beginning in Philadelphia in the 1790s and wreaking havoc in New York in 1803 and 1822. Death seldom provides a pleasant passage, but cholera was uniquely gruesome. In the early 1830s the West waited in terror for the disease, which originated in Asia, to make its way from Moscow to London and Paris and, ultimately, the New World. In a now famous letter dated April 9, 1832, the German poet Heinrich Heine (1796-1856) described the outbreak of cholera in Paris:

On March 29th, the night of mi-careme, a masked ball was in progress, the chabut in full swing. Suddenly, the gayest of the harlequins collapsed, cold in the limbs, and, underneath his mask, ‘violet-blue’ in the face [drowning in their own blood as fluid leaked into their lungs]. Laughter died out, dancing ceased, and in a short while carriage-loads of people were hurried from the redoute to the Hotel Dieu to die, and to prevent a panic among the patients, were thrust into rude graves in their dominoes [masks]. Soon the public halls were filled with dead bodies, sewed in sacks for want of coffins. Long lines of hearses stood en queue outside Pere Lachaise. Everybody wore flannel bandages. The rich gathered up their belongings and fled the town. Over 120,000 passports were issued at the Hotel de Ville [as translated in Geoffrey Marks and William K. Beatty, Epidemics, Scribner's, 1976].

This is the specter that confronted Rondout and Kingston at midcentury. Some worker housing had been burned to the ground to check the spread of the disease, but this succeeded only in part. It was imperative that the dead had to be distanced from the living. In the May 21, 1850 issue, The Rondout Courier’s editor had noted: “We may remark here that the village burial ground in Rondout scarcely affords room for another interment, and its situation would be a serious objection to farther [sic] burials there, even were it not thus. The two Kingston burial grounds, (we are informed) afford no room for new lots, thus rendering it desirable that another place for the dead be provided as a measure of present necessity, besides the prospective reason of a probable general law forbidding interments in village bounds, which will close both.”

Today, a century and half later, we await the avian flu with a dread born of previous pandemics — even the flu epidemics within living memory, those of 1957 and 1968. Let us hope that the plentiful space at Montrepose for additional gravesites proves not to be its way out of current financial straits. Very recently lot prices rose from $475 to $600, still a bargain and not yet enough to assure that Montrepose will remain the garden spot that “cannot be exceeded for beauty and scope in this region,” as it was described at its founding.

As Joshua Brustein wrote recently in The Gotham Gazette of another notable resting place, New York City’s Marble Cemetery: “Not having the money for continued maintenance is a serious concern for aging cemeteries. In the past some have disappeared below new development, a fate that theoretically won't happen now because the restrictions for new development on cemetery land are even tougher than those keeping cemeteries from developing new land. But the threat of falling into disrepair or abandonment is real, say some who manage historic cemeteries in the city. To avoid this, they are looking beyond burials to other fundraising possibilities....”

Montrepose may need to give up on the idea that it is simply a beautiful cemetery, though it is all of that. It can also be an outdoor theater, in which actors and writers take on the parts of the illustrious dead in a scripted theatrical presentation. It can host spooky films at Halloween. It can become Kingston’s Central Park.

--John Thorn

Friday, October 07, 2005

Kingston's Old Dutch Church, western view

Ghost World

From "Wake the Echoes," Kingston Times, October 6, 2005:
Fifty years ago my parents, looking to move from our apartment in the Bronx, brought me along for a realtor’s tour of an attractively priced row house in Maspeth, Queens. Everything seemed neat and agreeable until, walking into the kitchen at the back of the house, my mother gasped at the view out the back window: a massive cemetery. She rushed my brother and me out of the house as my father lingered to offer a hurried apology to the home’s owner.

Today I would guess that sea of headstones to have been Calvary Cemetery, but it might have been another of the seventeen necropoli that shot up in western Queens after the latest cholera epidemic put an end to Manhattan burials in 1852. No matter; the point was that my mother had witnessed her fill of death in Europe and had no wish to flash back while standing over the dishes.

For the past four years I, however, have looked down quite happily from the north window of my second-floor office in Kingston onto the Old Dutch graveyard, which fronts on Main Street between Fair and Wall. Its weathered markers of past lives, some commenced in the seventeenth century, seem to me not the least bit chilling or morbid, but calming and serene. Although no ancestor of mine rests here, I know these old Dutch names — Hardenbergh, Dubois, Hasbrouck, Tappen, Bruyn, and more — by custom and tradition; my familiar walk among them might as well be familial.

Actually, my office location compounds my distant-relation feelings, as it is in the one-time parsonage, constructed in 1836, of the Dutch Reformed Church, dedicated in 1852. That seeming discrepancy (why build a parish house first?) points to an odd chain of events into which St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, in view as I swivel my desk chair to the west, also figures. It was built by the congregation of the Old Dutch Church in 1832 as a sturdy brick successor to the log construction of 1661 as well as the stone structure of 1679 that was rebuilt in 1752, burned by the British in 1777, and rebuilt again. My odd perspective on St. Joseph’s eastern roofline reveals its 1830s Greek Revival origins, utterly camouflaged to Main Street strollers by the 1898 Beaux Arts refacing of its frontage.

In 1850 the Old Dutch congregation commissioned celebrated architect Minard Lafever to design a new house of worship at its old location on the south side of the street. (The slate roof was not Lafever’s idea; this locally inspired brainstorm caused the eastern wall to begin to bow almost immediately, and the predictable long-term effect is visible today — inside the church, with its tilted columns, and outside, with its ungainly buttresses.) This bluestone church, the noble edifice that has come to define Stockade Kingston today, was inspired in part by Sir Christopher Wren's St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The first to be buried from the new church was the painter John Vanderlyn, who reposes in Wiltwyck Cemetery and was the subject of my first “Wake the Echoes” column last year.

So what happened to the Old Dutch congregation’s 1832 brick church? It was leased to several commercial interests, served as an armory in the Civil War, and ultimately was sold to St. Joseph’s.

Returning to the storied stones of the Old Dutch churchyard, let’s start with the tablets embedded on each side of the entrance, which derive from the Old Middle Dutch Church on Nassau Street in New York City, erected in 1729 and given over to civic uses in 1844. With Biblical inscriptions in Dutch on the sandstone and in English on the granite, the tablets read, “I have loved the habitation of thy house” and “My house shall be called a house of prayer.”

These stones were presented to the Old Dutch Church in 1876 by one of its most celebrated parishioners, General George H. Sharpe. He also caused the statue called “Patriotism,” very recently refurbished, to be erected in 1896. Twelve years later the remains of George Clinton — first governor of New York State and Vice President under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — were removed from Washington, D.C. to a memorial in the west lawn of the cemetery.

Bronze tablets of interest adorn the front as well, one detailing the history of the church and the other a 1932 commemoration of George Washington’s visit, 150 years earlier, to the church then on this site. That church and the Lafever church of 1852 both fronted onto Main Street, but the latter was sited some distance north, directly above the graves of 81 congregants whose earthly remains the Old Dutch directors deigned to move. They lie under the church still, though their grave markers were relocated to the Fair Street side of the cemetery. These sadly fated souls and their death dates are cited on four marble tablets within the church, two on each side of the altar. One may identify their disembodied headstones by the “X” (St. Andrew’s Cross) incised on the backs. The marker for one of these unfortunates fronts on Main Street, just inches from pavement passersby:
OF APRIL 1690.
APRIL 1746

Several of the stones on both sides of the graveyard are cracked, their information lost to view though retained in the church records. Some are copper-clad at the top to hold the crumbling stone together. Many of the inscriptions are rubbed to the point of being indecipherable, or have splintered off into fragments that still lie on the turf, presenting a perplexing jigsaw puzzle. Bronze emblems placed by the Sons of the American Revolution to honor veterans of the War of Independence ornament the lawn like dandelions. Jagged obelisks, stone spears of more primitive times, mark the graves of Dutch parishioners such as Andries DeWitt, who died on July 22, 1710.

Why do we bury our dead in such sylvan settings and see that their graves are kept clean? Why not a funeral pyre or catacomb or pyramid? Because in Judeo-Christian cultures of the West we are nostalgic for the Garden of Eden, from which we so long ago were banished, never in life to return. We imagine that in death our heroes cavort on the fields of Elysium, les Champs Elysees, the Elysian Fields of Gold. In colonial America a headstone or urn under a weeping willow in back of the farmhouse was sufficiently affecting, as was a country churchyard setting like that of the Old Dutch. But as the nation urbanized, the need emerged for a park within the city, one that not only honored the fallen but gave recreation and clean air to the generations on the rise.

The national response may be measured equally by the new landscaped cemeteries — notably Mt, Auburn outside Boston (founded in 1831 by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society) and Green-Wood in Brooklyn (the first rural cemetery in New York, incorporated in 1838) — and such playing fields as the tellingly named Elysian Fields or Fenway Park. All were designed for the living, not for the dead, to provide country air and freedom from care for an afternoon’s picnic or amatory frolic (yes, boneyards were not always daunting).

When New York was swallowing up country retreats in its midst such as Lispenard’s Meadow while stingily repurposing military parade grounds such as Madison Square Park for public amusement, the open-spaces movement came into being. William Cullen Bryant proposed a vast park along the East River; Alexander Jackson Downing proposed a Central Park in very nearly its current location. From the cemetery to the ballfield to the public park is but a matter of degree.

So ... as we rush headlong into the Season of the Witch and the mercantile bonanza that October has become in our fair land, the question springs to the tip of the tongue: when and how did cemeteries become scary? And ghosts malevolent? When did we begin to feel the need to whistle in the graveyard rather than reverently touch the headstones?

More on this next week, when we visit the rolling landscape of Montrepose Cemetery.
--John Thorn