Cemetery Restoration

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.  In addition to PCA, two other community partners brought their own assets to the Revitalization Iniative:

- Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC), a prominent community-based economic development group in Jamaica gjdc.org; and

- The New York Landmarks Conservancy, an historic preservation organization whose main work is within the five boroughs of New York City nylandmarks.org.

The public partner for the Revitalization Initiative is the City of New York’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which owns Prospect Cemetery.  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.  Since 1999, the sponsors of the Prospect Cemetery Revitalization Initiative raised over $2.4 million in public and private funds and have accomplished a great deal in various phases as follows:

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 over 3000 markers in the Cemetery. Phase I funding totaled almost $400,000.

Phase II: Restoration of the Chapel of the Sisters

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 –recreated from salvaged pieces of the original glass 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 Chapel was dedicated in 2008 as the Illinois Jacquet Performance Space, in memory of the famous jazz saxophonist who lived in Jamaica.

Phase III: Vegetation Removal + New Landscaping + Marker Conservation Demonstration Project

This phase is now completed, 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. Two consultants oversaw the work for Phase III: dlandstudio, a landscape architecture firm, and Cutsogeorge Tooman and Allen (CTA), the preservation architects which completed the Chapel restoration.

In 2012, major vegetation removal was performed, over 150 dead and invasive trees were removed, and 70 trees pruned. Bramble, vines, and other growth that had flourished for many years were cleared carefully to reveal the grounds of Prospect Cemetery for the first time in decades. Pathways and family plots became evident, as well as many more markers – hundreds that were toppled and broken and/or deteriorated, right next to others standing upright and in excellent condition.

With the cemetery grounds viewable for the first time in many years, the next questions concerned how to restore it. To assist the sponsors in this regard, they commissioned a simplified cultural landscape report (CLR) from the firm of Jablonski Building Conservation. Completed in the summer of 2012, the CLR presented the social and physical history of Prospect Cemetery and recommended a treatment or restoration plan for it. The major findings – that Prospect Cemetery was always a simple burial ground covered in grass, that it had open views, that it contained a linear pathway and family plot system throughout most of it – prompted the conclusion that it should merely be replanted with grass throughout its grounds, with flowers in the beds around the Chapel.

2013 saw the restoration of Prospect Cemetery in accordance with the recommendations of the CLR. The grounds were cleared and treated where needed with herbicide. In the fall, the grounds were planted with a drought resistant grass that would require little or no mowing. The flower beds of the Chapel were planted with a mixture of hydrangea, lamb’s ear, black-eyed Susan, catmint, false spirea, and creeping thyme. By the end of the fall of 2013, there was greenery in the cemetery that was welcome for the first time in many, many, years.

Other accomplishments in 2013 included:

  • The completion by CTA of a digitalized survey of over 2,000 markers and 1,000 family plot posts using a Global Positioning System; the survey contains such information as marker locations, inscriptions, material composition, and condition, as well as a photograph of each item; and
  • The conservation of the first 14 markers by Jablonski Building Conservation; most were made of brownstone and dated from the 18th century.

With the cemetery grounds lush with the grass planted in 2013, work in 2014 included basic establishment care for the lawn and the conservation of another 28 of the earliest markers. Additionally, Green-Wood Cemetery donated its facilities staff to re-set another 50 toppled markers and promised to help out more in the future.