The Evergreens Cemetery draws visitors during Open House New York Weekend

October 16, 2017 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Welcome to the Evergreens Cemetery, a historic Bushwick graveyard. Eagle photos by Lore Croghan

Here lies Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, beloved tap dancer. And victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. And a grieving widower who lived in his dead wife’s tomb with a pet parrot for company.

They’re among the more than half-million people buried at the Evergreens Cemetery in Bushwick.

The historic graveyard, which was established in 1849, welcomed visitors on Saturday, Oct. 14 and Sunday, Oct. 15 for tours during the celebration of Open House New York Weekend.

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The annual event showcases architecturally and historically significant sites throughout the five boroughs. This year’s participants were an eclectic mix of properties ranging from museums to churches and synagogues to artfully designed shops to a whiskey distillery — and a number of cemeteries as well.

The weekend was partly supported by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

Visitors who toured the Evergreens got an informative tutorial from Eva Bowerman, the cemetery’s director of programs, about the architectural styles of some of the 225-acre graveyard’s mausoleums and gravemarkers.

Many of the mausoleums were meant to look like small-scale Classical Greek temples, Bowerman said during the tour she gave on Oct. 14. But here and there, Bowerman pointed out designs that were inspired by Egyptian-Revival architecture or Gothic-Revival architecture.

A mausoleum built for Louis Jantzen is Art Nouveau in style. It is located in a cluster of tombs near the Evergreens’ Bushwick Avenue entrance that’s referred to as Mausoleum Row — or Brewers’ Row, because some Brooklyn beer makers of yesteryear have their final resting place there.

Charles Roeder’s tomb, which is made of rusticated stone and has two small towers on either side of its entrance door, looks like a tiny castle.

Speaking of the Evergreens’ mausoleums, the one that was a big sensation more than a century ago was inhabited by Jonathan Reed, the grieving widower mentioned at the beginning of this story, and his parrot.

When Reed’s wife Mary died in 1893 she was initially buried in her father’s vault — where Reed spent massive amounts of time until Mary’s father put a stop to the visits.

After Reed’s father-in-law died in 1895, Reed bought a mausoleum for Mary and himself — and along with her casket he had furniture, a stove to keep him and Mary warm, paintings and even her unfinished knitting moved into the tomb.

He spent his days there for many years. When the parrot that served as his companion died, Reed had it stuffed so it could continue to stay by his side.

Reed had lots of human companionship in the mausoleum as well. The first year he spent there, about 7,000 people visited him.

Since his 1905 death, the Reeds’ tomb has been locked up tight. But Open House New York Weekend tour-takers did get to go inside another building in the cemetery that is normally closed to the public — the “receiving vault,” which was constructed in 1872.   

It was used to store bodies in the winter when the ground was frozen and gravediggers couldn’t do their jobs.

The receiving vault is constructed of Coignet stone, Bowerman said. This material, which is also called artificial stone, is concrete that’s cast in molds according to a process brought from France to Brooklyn in the 19th century.

The former headquarters of the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company, which manufactured artificial stone, is still standing. This individual city landmark, located on the corner of Third Avenue and 3rd Street in Gowanus, is flanked on either side by a Whole Foods supermarket.

Evergreens Cemetery visitors also got an update from Tony Wetzel of the Historic Construction Management Corp. on historically appropriate restoration work that has been done on the Evergreens’ Victorian-Gothic chapel.

Wetzel said during the tour he gave on Oct. 14 that the multi-year renovation project began with repairs to the exterior of the chapel.

“It lost all its character in earlier renovations,” Wetzel said.

Its tri-color slate roof had to be replaced. The bell in its steeple was restored.

Inside the chapel, which is now used as an administrative office, the restoration crew removed drop ceilings and discovered old-fashioned “penny-dot” porcelain tile on the floor.

Part of the interior is still under renovation. Tour-goers steered clear of it.


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