NEWSDAY / SEPTEMBER 30, 2003

Restoring Former Glory To Timeworn Graveyard

Refurbishments planned at Prospect Cemetery in Jamaica

 By Marc Ferris

Time has not been kind to the four-acre Prospect Cemetery, final resting place of Nostrands, Brinkerhoffs, Van Wycks and Sutphins – a veritable roll call of Queens history.

Over the years, vandals have abused the Jamaica property, and so have vagrants.  Its stone chapel is decayed and shoulder-high vegetation obscures even upright headstones.

“It’s such an eyesore,” said Ronald Thomas, associate dean for institutional advancement at York College in Jamaica.

The National Guard volunteered a few years back to clean up the cemetery, wedged between the Long Island Rail Road viaduct and the Medical Center of York College.

“We caught contractors dumping in there several times,” said Yvonne Reddick, district manager at Community Board 12.  “There’s just no respect for the dead.”

Maybe so, but the cemetery, founded in the 1660s, is now slated for refurbishment.

Greater Jamaica Development Corp. and the New York Landmarks Conservancy have secured several grants to spruce up the site, including $150,000 from the city’s capital budget to erect an iron fence, and a $300,000 grant from the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to repair the modest chapel, built in the 1850s.

“It’s one of the largest open spaces in the downtown and it’s a city landmark, so we wanted to try and turn it into an historic resource,” said Peter Engelbrecht, director of design, planning and capital projects for the Greater Jamaica Development Corp., which will oversee the work.

“The chapel seats about 100 people, so perhaps we can rent it out to arts and community groups, or York College can hold classes there.  If we can generate some income, then we can keep the place better groomed,” he said.

The effort comes at a time when cemeteries across the city are seeking innovative ways to increase community involvement in their use and upkeep, said Richard J. Moylan, president of Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn’s grand Victorian shrine to the deceased.  Moylan introduced a film festival on the cemetery’s grounds earlier this year.

The Prospect Cemetery project is tied to the conversion of 159th Street between Archer and Liberty avenues – currently closed to traffic – into a pedestrian mall.  Estimates will be solicited for that work in November, Engelbrecht said.

Preliminary work on the fieldstone-laced chapel, including a renovation of the roof and the removal and storage of the remaining stained glass windows, is complete, said Karen Ansis, fund manager of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a private nonprofit organization that helps local groups preserve and re-use historic properties.  Exterior work is scheduled to begin next year.

“This site is as deserving as any of support,” Ansis said.  “The chapel is a beautiful building and we want to see it come alive.”

The building has neither electricity nor running water.  There are pigeon droppings, a musty odor, and the interior is used to store lawnmowers, sickles and other gardening equipment.

The surrounding grounds offer one of the most serene landscapes in Queens, though with toppled tombstones and drug paraphernalia and empty liquor bottles strewn about.

“Even though Jamaica is moving forward, it’s valuable to keep a connection with the past,” Engelbrecht said.  “There’s a richness in the names and the language on the tombstones, and the people buried there helped build the city.  There’s a lot of potential there.”

Marc Ferris is a freelance writer.

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