Maple Grove Cemetery: Open House New York 16 October 2016

New day, new sites to see for Open House New York. A tour of Maple Grove Cemetery by the Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery had caught my eye because the cemetery is so close to my house. I knew it was an historical site that featured Civil War and Revolutionary War re-enactors and had people portray the lives of some of those buried there and that they put on cultural events and had celebrations (life celebrations, memorials, weddings, baptisms) in their community center. It is also a beautiful park with a lake and fountain, has a 9/11 memorial, and a place to reflect next to the pool/waterfall in the Center.

Walking up Lefferts Blvd., I stopped off at the Kew Gardens Cinema pocket park on Austin Street to see the new portrait of Rodney Dangerfield, who grew up across the street. There were also smaller portraits of some movie stars and places.




At the entrance to the cemetery you can see the Victorian Administration Building and an historical marker.



After checking in, we were greeted by our guide Carl Ballenas (historian and former teacher), who told us to go inside for food and water. We walked past a room full of racks of Victorian clothing to the president’s office where two tables were set up. One had different types of bagged chips, crudités, fruit, and cookies and the other table was filled with bottled water. There were 40 of us for the tour (and there was another tour at 2pm) so this was nice and generous. We went back outside and Ballenas gave a short history of the area. Kew Gardens used to be part of a larger community called Richmond Hill, all of which was considered the country. The cemetery is on the ‘backbone of Long Island’ or the Terminal Moraine of Long Island. Back in grade school for our class in NYC history we learned that this is where the glacier stopped and left all the rocks and debris. Since the land was not good for farming much of it became cemeteries and parks in NYC. The moraine ends at Hillside Avenue, where Queens is flat until the ocean. Going down the hill there were several glacial ponds, which were drained for the Richmond Hill Country Club golf course. One of those depressions is now the Kew Gardens Long Island Railroad station. The Victorian house used to have a bell tower (the bell is now outside of the Center). The coffins would arrive from New York City (then just Manhattan) and the bell would ring for the number of coffins so that they knew which cart to bring to carry the coffins from the LIRR station (then called Maple Grove since it was a cemetery stop). The Victorian house is built with stone dug out of the cemetery. There used to be a quarry there. There was an addition to the house in the 1920s.



The cemetery was formed in 1875 by a group of Brooklyn businessmen. It was originally 75 acres but 10 acres were sold to NYC in the 1930s for the construction of the Queens Blvd subway. Two parks were also built. The cemetery is divided into two sections – the Victorian northern section called Monument Park and the newer section called Memorial Park, which was designed in 1943. The cemetery is reclaiming unused graves. They are contacting the families of unused plots and buying them back. That is why you will sometimes see a modern gravestone next to a very old one.

They predict that the cemetery will be full in 80-85 years. The Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery was formed so that the cemetery would not be abandoned like so many other cemeteries in NYC. After it is full, it will continue on as an historical site and a place for community events.

Our tour included a guide dog.



Two women dressed up for the tour.


First stop was the African American Burial Ground. The area is marked off by four stones. Three hundred people are buried in one big plot. The bodies were brought over from the first African American church, Shiloh Presbyterian Church, in 1877. The original church was one block from the original St. Patrick’s Church and was founded in 1822 by Samuel Cornish (they don’t know where he is buried). The two succeeding pastors were leading abolitionists, like Cornish. The church was part of the Underground Railroad and the parishioners heard speakers like Frederick Douglass. The bodies were removed from a church vault and only 17 names are recorded. Maple Grove was never a sectarian cemetery. I remember when we would visit my great-uncle’s grave in Cypress Hill when I was a girl and my mother would comment on how the cemeteries were always segregated. This isn’t true at Maple Grove. There are people of all faiths and ethnicities.



Millie Tunnell is buried without a headstone. She was 111 or 114 when she died. She was born a slave in a plantation next to George Washington’s. She met Washington and used to tell stories about him. She lived in Jamaica, Queens and for years she would interviewed every year on her birthday.

Some of the plots will have gates leading into them. Two stones would be joined by a brass railing. Ballenas discovered that most of the railings were missing and thought they had been stolen. Turns out they were removed on December 8, 1941 to be melted down for the war.


Someone asked Ballenas if the cemetery was haunted. He said he spent the night with some re-enactors and the only sound he heard was the wind through the trees and he didn’t see anything.

A monument gravestone that includes the name of one of the 38 victims of the first terrorist bombing in NYC on September 16, 1920. The bomb was on a horse drawn carriage. No one was ever brought to justice.



The interesting thing about this Masonic monument is that they had the land behind it and in front of it. The land currently behind it was not being used and the temple had no new members, so they sold the land back to the cemetery. Since all the plots were behind the monument, they turned it around.


Both the obelisk and the shroud covered urn were very common monuments during Victorian times. The memorial with the urn in the first photo is blue. That’s because it was originally made of zinc, which was cheaper. They stopped making monuments with screwed in plates because it was discovered that criminals would hide their loot inside. The Monument section is full of interesting stones and memorials. During the walk, Ballenas pointed out the grave of the first man to take the Fifth. He was a florist who was worth $3 million and Mayor LaGuardia called him a punk. Pitz is a familiar name to NYers because they made many of our manhole covers. The stairs were all carved from one piece of stone.





This red oak is 55 inches around and nine stories tall. It has been named as a Great Tree by the NYC Tree Trust and is over 200 years old. The Lott family plots are behind the tree. They are one of the first families of Queens. The remains were moved from an old cemetery in Woodhaven that I’ve written about before.


This stone memorial is not for any people. It is for the Lang family printing presses lost on the Titanic.


Queen Victoria’s dentist is buried in the cemetery. He doesn’t have a headstone, the same as many Quakers buried there. Samuel Lloyd is America’s Puzzle King and Chess Master. His son was also a puzzle maker. He made $1 million on the donkey trick, which was purchased by PT Barnum. The plaque was placed there on October 1st.



There are Rikers graves in every Queens cemetery. Rikers Island is named after the family. Charles Manly, an aviation pioneer is buried there. He didn’t fly his airplane on the scheduled day and waited and the Wright Brothers flew their invention eight days after Manly’s scheduled flight and beat him by being the first to fly.

This receiving tomb is the oldest structure in Kew Gardens. It was built in 1875. It housed remains during the winter for burial in the spring. They also performed autopsies inside. Ruth Wheeler was a stenography student and the way you hired a stenographer in 1910 was to send a postcard. Wheeler was never heard from again. They went to the address on the postcard and the young man denied any knowledge of Wheeler’s disappearance. Her remains were found in his fireplace. There was a sensational trial and his lawyers claimed that the remains were not Wheeler. A second autopsy was performed in the receiving tomb that confirmed it was Wheeler. I think the killer might also be buried in Maple Grove.




The newer section has no urns or obelisks. Just rows of headstones. In the newest area there are brass plates. Looking across you are facing Jamaica Bay (you can’t see it from there; it just means you’re facing south). The flat area makes sense economically because it’s easier to mow. There used to be brass vases attached to all the plates but most have been stolen.




The 9/11 Memorial has the names of the dead who are buried in Maple Grove etched in the benches.




The headstones go from monuments, to rectangles, to pillows, to flat.




There’s a German baroness buried in the cemetery. She had married a count and she escaped when the Russians took over the castle. All she had with her were a monogrammed silver spoon, fork, and knife. She lived in Jamaica. Another interesting character is Count Joannes (born George Jones, who was knighted by the Russians). He was a Shakespearean actor in the 1800s noted for his wit. He was known as quite the ladies’ man and he represented himself in court against the many husbands who sued him. His wife, another actor, was famous for her temper and for carrying a riding crop. He was penniless when he died and his protégé Lydia Fairbanks/Avonia Fairbanks and other friends put together the money to bury him. Then there was a plot to steal his brain to find out what made him so smart and witty. Riflemen were placed next to his grave. Once they heard something, fired a shot, and found a pickaxe and shoeprints in the snow. After that incident they turned his body around so that his feet were where his head had been. There were no further incidents.

Outside of the Center is the bell from the tower in the Victorian Administration Building. The Center was designed by Peter Gisolfi. (I can’t remember which architect it was (probably James Ware, who designed the Victorian Administration Building) but the payment that architect asked for was 17 plots and $100.) Inside is a gallery that hosts book readings. There’s a pool/waterfall on one side and stones on the other. All the stones were found in the cemetery and were left by the glacier. Above the pool is a $275,000 stained glass window.








The Memorial Niche Room is the most modern columbarium I’ve ever seen. The niches are glass so that you can view the urn and any personal items.





Celebration Hall is used for one-year memorials or gatherings for after a burial. They have receptions with buffets or sit-down meals. Acoustic ceilings are in place for the concerts held there. There are celebrations of some musicians buried like Jimmy Rushing, LaVern Baker, and Josef and Rosina Lhevinne, who taught Van Cliburn and John Williams. There’s a great view of the lake and fountain.




The Family Room is used for smaller gatherings and by the families before and after a burial. It is also used by the cemetery staff to talk next to a fireplace with the grieving families when they make their plans. This way they’re not talking in a cold office next to a filing cabinet. In the room is the Steinway grand piano, a Tang dynasty statue donated in memory of someone’s grandfather, and a Holocaust sculpture.




The Center also has a classroom. While inside Ballenas told us about the Halloween tour where they show the site of the first grave robbing victim. Her bones were replaced with PVC pipes and her blood vessels were sold as those of a healthy 20-year-old. In a more recent case of stealing body parts, the dentist convicted of the crime is buried at Maple Grove. Son of Sam’s second victim Virginia Voskerichian, who was killed in Forest Hills, is buried there. A man who killed a woman and used her scalp as a disguise is also buried there. August Mueller, who was killed while riding a carriage is in the cemetery. The horses stopped short, he flew over the horses, and hit the lamppost. There was a woman buried alive there. Dr. Zachariah Dennler, whose medical probe was used to remove the bullet from Lincoln’s brain is there. One woman was kneeling at the grave of her husband and her car ran over her. They buried her next to her husband (not immediately after the accident, I’m sure). The horse caretaker was found ill in the stables. He said to check a certain section if he died. After he died they went over to that section and they found an open grave. So they buried him there. There are 88,000 stories in Maple Grove and none should be forgotten.

Carved trunks mark where young saplings died.


No one knows what this design is meant to represent.


This angel was found on the premises. It was probably used to mark a grave at one time but wasn’t being used so the cemetery placed it here. It doesn’t mark anything. There are memorial stones throughout.




“To Julia. My only true friend.” This was a mystery for some time. No person was recorded as being buried on that spot. The person who bought the plot is not buried in Maple Grove. Records were not helpful. Finally, Ballenas saw a small notation, written very lightly. DOG. It turns out the dog had saved a family from a fire. How she was buried in the cemetery, which wasn’t legal, no one knows.


Jacob Riis, who is not buried in Maple Grove, planted twin beech saplings from his yard at his wife Elizabeth’s grave in 1906. From his diary: “Katie. Miss Phillips and I have been up to the cemetery to see mother’s grave just now. It is beautiful indeed. We have planted up two of the little beeches and a small Laburnum, also a red barley azalea from our garden…I have put up a granite headstone with mother’s name and years of birth and death, and on top a little lamb lying down and looking very sweet.”


Civil War soldiers – both North and South – are buried at Maple Grove.

George Washington Johnson, the first recording superstar is buried in an unmarked grave. He was a former slave. His recordings were on cylinders and he sold 50,000 and made 25 cents for each. There was no duplication then, so he would have had to sing the same song 50,000 times. It’s possible he sang in more than one horn at a time so that would have meant singing fewer times. Though it still would have been a lot. When the Grammy people heard that Maple Grove was putting up monument for Johnson, they contributed $3000.


This headstone represents a person’s life. Buds for their birth. An open rose for their life. And a rose pointing down for their death.


Another beautifully carved headstone.


Peter Conklin, a Barnum and Bailey clown, who invented pink lemonade died in 1924. On October 22nd there will be Pink Lemonade and Circus Music event held for free in his honor. It will include an hour of rare 1910s-1930s circus themed cartoons.

It was a delightful two hours made even better by Ballenas, who is a most excellent guide full of warmth and humor.

By Carene Lydia Lopez