Green-Wood Cemetery: Tranquility and History in Brooklyn
October 17, 2012

Green-Wood Cemetery: Tranquility and History in Brooklyn

“Believe it or not, I may have discovered a new site for your blog,” wrote Nana Beth, our children’s paternal grandmother, from her home in Reston, Virginia. “Yesterday I attended a lecture on ‘Forgotten Martyrs of the American Revolution,’ given by someone from the National Park Service. What caught my attention was his description of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. It is on the National Historic Registry and there is a monument to Minerva, the Goddess of Battle, on Battle Hill. The statue literally faces the Statue of Liberty, and stands on the highest point in Brooklyn.” 

That was all we needed to read to get out the calendar to figure out when we could explore Green-Wood. Between weekend swim lessons and other activities, it took us a couple of weeks to make it out there, but on a recent Sunday we finally went—and wished we had many times before! 

We entered at 20th Street (see “Getting There and Logistics” for our route) where the guard, Michael Lilley, gave us a detailed map and general lay of the land. We admitted to feeling a little odd to be visiting a cemetery as an outdoors destination, but Michael assured us that from his experience, Green-Wood was “very much for the living.” He said that most visitors were history buffs and nature lovers who appreciated the beautiful landscaping and the absolutely stunning views of Manhattan and New York Harbor. 

How Cemeteries Inspired New York City Parks

During the nineteenth century, this then-rural site attracted some half-million visitors each year, which, according to Green-Wood’s annotated map, rivaled Niagara Falls as the country’s greatest tourist attraction. Tourists came to enjoy the outdoors, the views, and the many incredible sculptures scattered throughout the rolling hills. It is little wonder that Green-Wood served as inspiration for green spaces such as Central Park in Manhattan and nearby Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

With 478 acres of beautiful rolling hills, pristine ponds, and meandering paths (most paved), Green-Wood is still a destination for families, history buffs, and those looking for a new place to explore. Most of the roads and paths are named after trees—Beech, Cypress, Vine, Grove, and Sassafras, to name a few—and the grounds are covered with young and mature trees alike. Michael also pointed out a large and active hornet’s nest not too far afield from his post. “There aren’t many places in New York where you’re going to find one of those,” he commented. 

And obviously nowhere else are you going to find the highest point of natural elevation—220 feet—in Brooklyn, which was the highlight of our inaugural visit. The views, and the legendary synergy between the hill’s statue and Lady Liberty in New York Harbor, were worth the trip out—and up—Battle Hill, situated in the northwest corner of Green-Wood. The hill itself also occupies an important place in the history of the American Revolution.  Although the outnumbered troops on the lookout hilltop ultimately succumbed to the British and Hessian army, the battle demonstrated the Americans’ strength and will for independence.  

Visiting Permanent Residents

Over 560,000 people are interred at Green-Wood among them many famous (and infamous) politicians, entertainers, artists, sports heroes, and, of course, military heroes. The painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, the music conductor Leonard Bernstein, the stained-glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Charles Ebbets, and the Tammany boss William Magear “Boss” Tweed are among those buried here.

As you take in the many sights and historical notes of Green-Wood, it is important to keep in mind that the cemetery is still active, and as such, it is critical to maintain “museum behavior.” Jogging, bicycle riding, scootering, eating, drinking, and pets are not allowed. It is a destination better suited for older children and babies in strollers than active toddlers. 

Getting There and Logistics

For the main entrance, take the R train to 25th Street and walk one block east to Green-Wood at 5th Avenue and 25th Street, or take the R or D to 36th Street and walk two blocks to 34th Street to enter via the western entrance. 

Or, take the 2, 3, 4, 5, B or Q train to Grand Army Plaza and walk through the circle to Prospect Park. Do not enter the park, but instead walk along Prospect Park West until you come to the entrance to Green-Wood at 20th Street. This is what we did, and with our kids, Riley (9) and Halina (6) both on foot, it took us about a half hour—including a stop for hot dogs, ice cream, and water.  Fountains are conveniently located every few blocks along the parkside of Prospect Park West. 

At Green-Wood, restrooms are in the converted carriage house at 20th Street, and in the grand main entrance building at 25th Street. 

 

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