Today, the last day of summer, I finally got a chance to see the Green-Wood Cemetery exhibit, A Beautiful Way Go, at the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibit ends in two weeks; if you are able to see it, I highly recommend.
This year marks Green-Wood’s 175th anniversary. The garden cemetery pre-dates Central and Prospect Parks, and was a template for the City Beautiful movement that came decades later during the Gilded Age. I have spent hundreds of hours in Green-Wood and can attest that it is one of the great historic treasures in the United States. Places like Green-Wood are interesting for many reasons, not least in what they tell us about nineteenth century travel and leisure. In the decade prior to the Civil War, 500,000 individuals visited Green-Wood every year to enjoy its bucolic scenery and take a break from the rapidly industrializing city. Three of the most visited places in New York State from 1850-1900 were Green-Wood, Niagara Falls, and, later, Grant’s Tomb.
At first I was underwhelmed because the exhibit space seemed rather small, just one room and not a big one at that. I quickly realized that, though compact, the show contains a great deal, especially for the patient museum goer willing to put in the work. There is a lot to take in. With so much to choose from–there are over half a million people buried in Green-Wood–the curators selected a representative cross-section of artists, industrialists, inventors, politicians, and military figures. I have seen a number of the Civil War generals buried in Green-Wood (Henry Halleck, Fitz John Porter, and Abram Duryée, to name a few), but I did not know until today that there are more CW generals buried at Green-Wood than anywhere else except Arlington and West Point.
I had read very little of this show and so did not know what to expect. One of the things that makes it work is that it combines the resources of both Green-Wood Cemetery and the Museum of the City of New York, which itself dates to 1923. Thus, one not only learns that Louis Comfort Tiffany is buried at Green-Wood, one sees Tiffany items from the MCNY collection on display in the same exhibit case. Exhibiting keys from some of the mausoleums–and, yes, they were the old-fashioned skeleton ones–was a nice touch. There were some expected names, such as Boss Tweed and Horace Greeley. The funnest, though, were the lesser figures such as pencil manufacturer Eberhard Faber and economist Henry George, all but forgotten today but famous enough for 100,000 people to show up for his 1897 funeral. It is one of those shows that makes you see things and make connections that you otherwise might not have made.
Go now and you will even see the leaves changing in Central Park across the street.
(image by Brady studio/Library of Congress)