Completion of a 15 Year Endeavor
Prospect Cemetery Revitalization Initiative (1999 – 2014)
Since 1999, the Conservancy has been a partner in the Prospect Cemetery Revitalization Initiative, along with two other nonprofit organizations (Greater Jamaica Development Corporation and Prospect Cemetery Association) and the cemetery’s owner of record, the City of New York Department of Parks & Recreation.
The three nonprofit organizations raised over $2.2 million in public and private funds in this time to secure the four acre site, which is a City-designated landmark and National Register-listed property; restore its 1857 Chapel of the Sisters which now serves as a venue for jazz concerts and other events; clear the grounds of years of vegetative growth and undesirable trees; plant the entire cemetery with slow-growing, no-mowing, low maintenance grass; and conserve the oldest and most important markers.
After 15 years of extensive work, Prospect Cemetery now looks like a cemetery – much changed from even three years ago.
Prospect Cemetery in Jamaica, Queens, with its vacant Chapel of the Sisters, had been in need of attention for many decades, when three nonprofit organizations came together in 1999 to form the Prospect Cemetery Revitalization Initiative. The goals of the Revitalization Initiative included physically securing the site, restoring its Chapel, removing the overgrown vegetation, conserving the markers, re-landscaping the grounds, and instituting interpretive history and educational programs based upon the newly reclaimed Prospect Cemetery site.
The three organizations each brought their own assets to the endeavor:
- Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC), a prominent community-based economic development group in Jamaica gjdc.org;
- Prospect Cemetery Association of Jamaica Village (PCA), an entity whose membership is composed of descendants of people buried in Prospect Cemetery www.prospectcemeteryassociation.org; and
- The New York Landmarks Conservancy.
The public partner for the Revitalization Initiative is the City of New York’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which owns Prospect Cemetery.
Prospect Cemetery is the oldest burial ground in Queens and one of the oldest in the five boroughs. Founded in 1668, its markers date from 1709 and comprise a collection of eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century markers and monuments. Prospect Cemetery is the burial site for many Revolutionary War soldiers, as well as some of Queens’ most prominent families with names like Van Wyck, Sutphin and Brinkerhoff. The Cemetery, along with its beautiful chapel, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated New York City landmark. PCA’s website cited above contains a good deal of genealogical and other historic information about the Cemetery.
By the turn of the 21st century, most of the four-acre cemetery’s descendants lived in other places, and the grounds had become wildly overgrown with many varieties of vines, invasive trees, and other vegetation; many of its markers had been damaged as a result of age and/or vandalism.
Since 1999, the sponsors have accomplished a great deal in various phases of the Revitalization Initiative:
Phase I: Security and Streetscape Improvements.
Completed in 2006, this phase involved securing the entire site with new fencing and street improvements (lighting and new sidewalks) to 159th Street, which runs along the front edge of the Cemetery. Other work prior to 2006 included a demonstration landscape project and the start of documentation for the markers in the Cemetery. Phase I funding totaled almost $400,000 in private and public sector grants.
Phase II: Restoration of the Chapel of the Sisters
In 1857, Nicholas Ludlum commissioned the building of the Chapel of the Sisters, a memorial to his three deceased daughters, at the eastern end of the graveyard. The Chapel is a symmetrical, one-story Romanesque Revival building, approximately 40 by 40 feet, and 25 feet high. At each of the northern and southern facades there was a large stained-glass rose window (only glass fragments remained in 1999; they were removed and stored then). In its square proportions and somber materials, the Chapel created an eloquent memorial to its namesakes and served as the main entrance and the focal point of Prospect Cemetery.
Completed in the summer of 2008 at a total cost of $790,000, the restoration of the Chapel of the Sisters included new heating, plumbing, and electrical systems, new wood windows and entry doors, new floors, and other work to enable the Chapel to be used for small concerts and meetings. The most spellbinding feature was the re-installation of the two rose windows – an assemblage of saved shards from the original windows and new matching glass. The firm of Cutsogeorge Tooman & Allen was the project architect, and Fame Construction was the general contractor, with The Gil Studio performing the stained-glass window work. The York College Jazz Program regularly uses the Chapel for performances, and other groups hold activities there as well.
Phase III: Vegetation Removal + New Landscaping + Initial Marker Conservation
This phase was completed in 2014 using grants of $500,000 from the New York State Environmental Protection Fund and $500,000 from the New York City Capital Budget via the office of former Queens Borough President Helen Marshall. The Historic Properties Fund provided a $250,000 revolving line of credit to GJDC to bridge the timing gap between payments to contractors (required first by the public grants) and then reimbursements from the public grants.
There were various consultants that participated in the work for Phase III: dlandstudio, a landscape design firm, and Cutsogeorge Tooman and Allen (CTA), the preservation architects who completed the Chapel restoration; Schnabel Conservation, a subconsultant to CTA; and Jablonski Building Conservation (JBC), which prepared a cultural landscape report and conserved the first priority markers.