I must have walked past the entrance to Marble Cemetery on Second Ave (btw. 2nd & 3rd Sts.) countless times before I first noticed its existence (and I’m guessing I’m not the only one).
Sandwiched between two buildings is this iron gate (technically 41 1/2 Second Ave), which is locked 99% of the year. Even if you notice the sign, you can only barely make out the cemetery down the long alley.
Marble Cemetery is New York’s oldest non-sectarian cemetery, founded in 1831 (not to be confused with the other Marble Cemetery around the corner – I’ll do a post on that one soon). Its first burial was for the child of one Dr. Post who died in 1830, and its 2,000th and final was for Charlie VanZandt in 1937. Many were for children below the age of 6.
From April to October, the cemetery is usually open on Sundays for a few hours in the afternoon (access is available year round to those that make an appointment – check out their website for more details). The final visiting day of 2009 was on October 25, and having been meaning to check it out for years, I finally went down to see it. I was pretty excited to see the front gate actually unlocked and wide open, and to be able to walk down the alley…
Unfortunately, the cemetery was closed for a film shoot (stupid New York film productions…).
Luckily, you don’t have to go too far into the cemetery to take it in. Marble Cemetery consists of 156 underground vaults set 10 feet underground, each the size of a small room. Why vaults and no coffin burials? At the time of its incorporation, legislation had been passed in the city that outlawed earth graves due to fears of yellow fever outbreaks (the vault system was thought to prevent this). Check out this floor plan and cross-section to see how the vaults are arranged.
Each vault has a removable stone slab set a few feet below the lawn covering adjoining vault doors. Once uncovered, a key is needed to open a vault door. The one below is for Vault 113 (pictures from the Marble Cemetery site/Ruth Ward).
There are no headstones (the few in the first picture are movie props). Instead, marble tablets on the stone walls denote nearby burials. The southern wall of the cemetery is below.
Note the “Warning Falling Rocks” sign. Unfortunately, the walls have seriously deteriorated and are in need extensive repairs (the entire west wall is gone, and large portions are missing from the north). According to the website, plans are in place to do this in stages, though I’m pretty sure donations are much appreciated.
Below, the northern wall. The Tuckahoe marble used in the tablets (also found in Brooklyn Borough Hall, St. Patrick’s, the US Capitol) is soft and weathers badly. Check out this list of plaque names for evidence of how many have become illegible.
In the south-west corner once stood the so-called Dead House, a small structure used for the temporary holding of remains. The Dead House was positioned over Marble Cemetery developer Perkins Nichols own vault, and his tablet was set into its facade. The Dead House was torn down in 1955 (photo from MarbleCemetery.org).
I love Manhattan cemeteries, in part because of how annoyed they must make developers. I find the idea of multi-million dollar plots of land being permanently dedicated for the rotting remains of long dead New Yorkers to be completely mind-boggling in one sense and very satisfying in another. Thankfully, they’re all landmarked, and we can enjoy them as both historical relics and outdoor public spaces for years to come.
PS – For those looking for a shooting location, Marble Cemetery is very open to productions. Contact them through their website. Also, for anyone looking for a New York alley and coming up short, the Marble Cemetery entrance could easily stand in if you can cheat out the iron gate.