An ill wind recently reminded us that life can change in an instant. Indeed, so can death.
Hurricane Sandy, which plowed through the New York City area last Monday evening, generally spared Washington Heights residents the power losses and flooding that are still crippling other parts of the city. But the storm did punish one of the uptown area’s oldest landmarks, Trinity Church Cemetery.
Established in 1842, this 24-acre memorial park–listed on the National Register of Historic Places–is Manhattan’s only active cemetery, which this writer has been researching and giving tours of for several years. A week after the big storm,the combined forces of nature and neglect still haunt the grounds.
Prominent John Jacob Astor marker destroyed
Still visible is the storm damage that poured out of the cemetery into the street. Beside the sidewalk on the east side of Broadway, about midway between 153rd and 155th Streets, lie a broken tree trunk and a dislodged stone pediment at the foot of a retaining wall. West of Broadway on 155th Street, a giant oak with roots intact hangs ominously over the bluestone pavers of the public pathway. Inside, streams of yellow “caution” tape zigzag here and there in anticipation of a cleanup crew.
The cemetery’s most prominent mortuary structure destroyed by the hurricane appears to be the Astor Vault, the obelisk that marked the grave of John Jacob Astor. Born in Waldorf, Germany, on July 17, 1763, Astor immigrated to the United States in 1784, just after the American Revolutionary War. Although he arrived an obscure steerage passenger, he was perhaps the most prominent of New York’s 18th- and 19th-century merchant princes and the patriarch of a family whose name personifies American prosperity to this day.
In the early nineteenth century, Astor’s monopoly of the fur trade between the United States and Europe contributed to opening the American frontier to settlement and economic development. Some of his exploits raised eyebrows, such as when around 1816 he combined smuggling tons of contraband Turkish opium to China with the legitimate imports of “opium, oil of roses & fresh figs” to New York.
Astor’s grave long forgotten
Real estate accounted for Astor’s most stupendous fortune and fame. When he died on March 29, 1848, his worth of over $30,000,000 made him the richest man in the country. Astor’s will endowed $400,000 to establish a free circulating library, which evolved into today’s New York Public Library.
But despite his prominence, John Jacob Astor’s grave in the cemetery was long only tenuously acknowledged, and usually overshadowed by his descendant John Jacob Astor IV. The latter’s death on the Titanic in 1912 recalls one of the most famous tragedies in modern history. The presence of the original Astor had likely been forgotten because he’d been buried elsewhere at first–in a vault in St. Thomas Church–then in 1851 was reinterred here. In 1873, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, “John Jacob Astor’s remains lie under a plain marble shaft.”
On Monday night of October 29, 2012, that “plain marble shaft” embossed with the words “Astor Vault” smashed to pieces on the ground under the concussion of a giant oak tree.
Many lovers, but no “Friends”
Of course, Mother Nature doesn’t know her Jones’s from her Astors. The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy made it sadly evident that this historic 19th-century cemetery–many of whose descendant families have died off or moved away–has many lovers, but no friends. I witnessed several empathetic locals who came by to help clean up the grounds, but who could find no authorities to grant them permission or supervision.
In light of Trinity Wall Street’s 10-mile distance from its uptown property–and its own storm-imposed predicament–maybe it will encourage the formation of a formal body of “Friends.” As one looks around, this is the most obvious deprivation of this for this venerable cemetery, which a palimpsest of the diverse public faces that have authored New York City’s character. A local “Friends of” organization could surely help maintain this undisputed national treasure, which gets tossed in a storm too frequently to be out of earshot.