Old First Sells Plots Back To Green-Wood Cemetery

One of the keys to a successful real estate investment is “location, location, location,” but Old First has that beat.

Since 1654, Old First has been located at six different spots. Its first locale was under a tree, then a barn (you have to start somewhere). By 1666, a physical church structure was built in what is now known as Fulton Street. One hundred years later, the original church was replaced and a burial ground was added on Fulton, between Lawrence and Bridge Streets.

Church graveyards were a common sight in those days, but the stones and bones have since been transferred to the famous Green-Wood cemetery. Starting in 1838, Green-Wood was establishing its own iconic status in Brooklyn.  It currently consists of 478 acres (just about the size of Prospect Park) and features amazing Gothic Revival architecture.

About 5,000 Civil War soldiers are buried there (75 of them Confederates), as well survivors of the Titanic, and Frank Morgan, the actor who played The Wizard of Oz in the classic film. Also residing there in eternity: conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, Boss Tweed, and the founders of Currier & Ives, Steinway Pianos, F.A.O. Schwarz, Wesson Oil, Morse Code, and the original Brooks Brothers.

Cedar Dell, Old First’s section of Green-Wood Cemetery.  This photo of Green-Wood Cemetery is courtesy of TripAdvisor.

The Old First section of Green-Wood is called Cedar Dell, enclosed on three sides by a circular ridge. And remarkably — indeed, uniquely — the Old First cemetery is circular itself.  The graves are arranged in a great ring of concentric circles, with the ancient Dutch tombstones from Fulton Street standing shoulder to shoulder, like tireless sentinels. The circular arrangement gives a marvelous feeling of rest and compose. Green-Wood has graciously pledged to maintain this for the future.

The cemetery’s beginnings were humble, though. At that time, traveling to faraway destinations was troublesome and inconvenient for most people, although legislation to rid crowded cities of cemeteries was increasing.

“The distance between Fulton and Green-Wood was a bit of a schlep in terms of distance,” says Old First deacon Pete Redell. “People were reluctant to be buried at Green-Wood because it was so far away.”

Green-Wood’s solution was to strike a deal with the local churches: give us your graveyards, and we’ll give you a large piece of our property so that you can bury your parishioners there.

As a result, Old First acquired about 750 plots at Green-Wood. We’ve been toying with the idea of selling our plots back to them for some time, but one tragic incident made the idea a no-brainer and a sudden priority: the falling of the sanctuary ceiling.

Archangel Michael, Rinelli-Guardino Mausoleum, Greenwood Cemetery

“We were looking for different ways to finance the restoration of the sanctuary,” Pete says. “It occurred to us that we could sell some of the space at Green-Wood to help finance it.”

Sounds like a plan, but here’s the catch: according to the original deed, Green-Wood was only obligated to pay us what we originally paid for the land back in 1860, plus simple interest.

That grand total (drum-roll please): $40,000. Yep, and that’s after 150 years.

That’s when it came time to do a little negotiating. We reached out to Green-Wood president Rich Moylan and his executive staff and invited them to the bargaining table.

Our best negotiator: Pastor Daniel Meeter, who reminded Green-Wood of how Old First helped them out way back in the day. It was Brooklyn churches like Old First that helped Green-Wood prosper, when nobody had an interest in traveling that far to a cemetery.  

It was a process by which each side came to appreciate the other’s charitable purpose and activities. We arrived at an arrangement that each regarded as beneficial to its own organization’s long-term future.

Stephen Lappert, an Old First member and the sale’s attorney, adds, “It was very generous of Green-Wood to try to work around what they could have insisted on. The church and Green-Wood reached an arrangement that was beneficial for both parties. The money will be available to help rebuild the sanctuary.”

Cedar Dell, Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood’s legacy — like the people buried there — is forever. It actually inspired architects and city planners to create Prospect Park, Central Park, and the first planned suburb, Llewellyn Park in New Jersey. The cemetery is a place of rest for over 560,000 souls.

The sale will go a long way in helping restore our sanctuary; it also helped history come full circle.