Green-Wood and Woodlawn cemeteries in NYC are historic gems

Woodlawn Cemetery houses the Belmont Memorial Chapel.

Woodlawn Cemetery houses the Belmont Memorial Chapel. (Credit: Handout)

Don't be put off by the dead people -- cemeteries contain some of New York's most enthralling history, greenest spaces and most distinguished architecture. In particular, the city is home to two gorgeous cemeteries that are National Historic Landmarks: Woodlawn in the Bronx and Green-Wood in Brooklyn.

Before there were parks, cemeteries functioned as urban escapes, and Central Park was directly inspired by Green-Wood, founded in 1838. They can still serve that function, as both of the city's historic gems have massive old trees and lush landscaping. "A lot of people think of us as their private, secret park," says Jeff Richman, Green-Wood's historian.

Even on a summer day at Woodlawn, you can have the place to yourself. "We are just great outdoor space," says Susan Olsen, director of historical services at Woodlawn, which sprawls over 400 acres. "It's paradise for birders, leaf collectors and mushroom hunters."

Back in mid-19th century, art lovers didn't have a lot of choices, either. "There was no Met museum," says Richman. "To see the leading sculptors of the time, you came to the cemetery. It was a massive tourist attraction." The works of greats like Daniel Chester French, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Augustus Saint-Gaudens are still on view and well preserved in these cemeteries -- they are "outdoor museums," as Olsen puts it.

Here are a few highlights of both cemeteries.

GREEN-WOOD

Established 1838, 478 acres, 500 25th St., Brooklyn, 718-768-7300, green-wood.com

GETTING THERE R train to 25th Street

CELEBS William M. "Boss" Tweed, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Morse, Jean-Michel Basquiat

DESIGN HIGHLIGHTS The Gothic arches at the entrance gate, by Richard Upjohn & Son; the Historic Chapel, circa 1912, by Warren and Wetmore, who also designed Grand Central Terminal

LOCATION FEATURE Hilly topography that was chosen originally for its stunning views of the water, now affording a look at the Manhattan skyline

FUN FACT The cemetery's app, Greenwood Discovery, debuts Monday.

WOODLAWN

Established 1863, 400 acres, Webster Avenue and East 233 Street, the Bronx, 718-920 0500, thewoodlawncemetery.org

GETTING THERE 4 train to Woodlawn

CELEBS Herman Melville, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Fiorello LaGuardia, Jay Gould

DESIGN HIGHLIGHTS 39 sets of Tiffany Studio windows spread throughout; the recently restored Belmont Mausoleum, courtesy of turn-of-the-century brother-act architects Hunt & Hunt, based on a French chapel

LOCATION FEATURE Woodlawn owes its Bronx digs to the Vanderbilts -- the cemetery had to be on a railway so the funeral train could access it, and the line that became Metro-North was perfect.

FUN FACT The cemetery still has 20 acres left.

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