Brooklyn Boro

Ask a historian: What’s up with the Roeblings’ burial situation?

April 19, 2019 John Manbeck
Statues of John Roebling, his son Washington Roebling and Washington’s wife Emily, who were chiefly responsible for the design and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Eagle file photo

William from Boerum Hill asked: Why was William Van Alen buried in Cold Spring-on-Hudson next to Emily Warren Roebling and her divorced husband, Washington?

Wow! That is a complex question.

First, let’s dispose of a fallacy. The Roeblings never divorced. Emily died of cancer in Trenton in 1903 after a prosperous long life of 60 years in which she became Washington’s wife, nurse, emissary, defender and promoter. Five years later, Washington Roebling married Cornelia Farrow on April 21, 1908.

His association to Emily, his first wife, was a close symbiotic relationship. Because of the “caissons disease” or bends that began to pressure him in 1872, he was very dependent on her. This is demonstrated by letters he wrote to her, as shown in “Chief Engineer” by Erica Wagner. Not only did he select her to be the first person to ride across the Brooklyn Bridge (the construction of which she oversaw) in 1883, but she was also presented to Queen Victoria and attended the coronation of Czar Nicholas II of Russia. She is remembered on the bridge with a plaque.

Washington Roebling, the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge, survived and continued to improve, even criticizing the construction of the George Washington Bridge. His company, John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, supplied cable for that bridge as well as the Golden Gate Bridge. He died in 1926 at the age of 89.

Both Washington and Emily Roebling are buried under runic crosses in Cold Spring-on-Hudson, near Boscobel. She had been born in that town in 1843, which is described in Wagner’s biography as “a little like Brooklyn-on-Hudson.” Washington’s second wife, Cornelia, died in 1942 and is buried in Walterboro, South Carolina.

The name William Van Alen may not be known to many — but his primary contribution to the skyline is the Chrysler Building on East 42nd Street in Manhattan, built in 1929. Not only was the Art Deco building the tallest at the time, but it also incorporated one of the first uses of stainless steel in architecture.

Before that, he was involved with the creation of the original the Standard Arcade on Broadway, the Albemarle, and Bainbridge Building in Midtown, according to Christopher Gray in The New York Times. His Astor Hotel replaced The Waldorf Astoria, then at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

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Finally, the Empire State Building superseded the Chrysler as New York’s tallest skyscraper in 1931.

Van Alen is a product of Brooklyn, born in Williamsburg in 1883 and educated at Pratt Institute. He lived at several different Brooklyn addresses and built a Fulton Street bank building. Believing that metal houses were the “Houses of the Modern Age,” he built a model sterel house on Ocean View Avenue in Seagate, Coney Island, in 1936. It’s nicknamed The Sugar Cube. Ironically, I have visited a friend, Peter Spanakos, who lives in that house.

Van Alen died in 1954 at his Prospect Park West home, leaving to the world the Van Alen Institute, his center for design innovation. His association with Cold Spring-on-Hudson is his family. His Dutch ancestor, Jacob Van Alen, lived in Cold Spring before he moved to New York City.

William Van Alen, his parents, wife and sister are buried in Cold Spring. The Roeblings and the Van Alens may have had plots that were adjoining each other’s. It’s as simple as that.

Ask a Historian is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian. To find answers to your questions about our fair borough and its history, fill out the form below. 


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