Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery -- with its sprawling lawns, flowering plants, shady trees, sculptures and architectural monuments -- offered wealthy people a place to escape from the overcrowding and disease of lower Manhattan in the 1800s.
Green-Wood is a perfect place for a picnic, or a stroll, said Donald Albrecht, curator of architecture and design at the City Museum of New York.
The 478-acre cemetery, which Thursday celebrates its 175th anniversary, inspired Central Park and the landscape design of suburbia, said Albrecht, curator of a new exhibition: "A Beautiful Way to Go: New York's Green-Wood Cemetery." The exhibition on the National Historic Landmark opens May 15.
Green-Wood Cemetery offered a spiritual connection with nature and a respite for city workers looking for fresh air on their day off. In its early days, Green-Wood Cemetery attracted 500,000 visitors annually, he said.
"It became an enormous park system" where people communed with nature, he said. "It created a new idea that death could be a pleasant and serene experience."
Back then, visitors took horse-drawn carriage tours through the cemetery, looking for the most fanciful, artistically designed tombstones marked on maps sold at the site.
At the museum exhibition visitors will have a virtual experience of the cemetery where its historic tour maps of winding roads are enlarged and draped on the gallery walls and floor. Glass-encased exhibits will highlight the tombstones of the famous people buried there, including toy store founder Frederick A.O. Schwarz and composer Leonard Bernstein.
The exhibition will feature 200 sculptures, architectural drawings and paintings that inspired the design of the cemetery, and wall-size commissioned photographs of the cemetery in its four seasons.
The exhibition also will display 19th century objects used by mourners.
Today Green-Wood Cemetery offers weekly tours to 200,000 visitors. "It's amazing. The tourists are really surprised when they see its beauty and tranquillity right in the middle of urban Brooklyn," said Jeff Richman, Green-Wood Cemetery historian.
Interest in the 560,000 people buried there continues, he said. Recently, he received a letter from the Tomas Acea Cemetery in Cienfuegos, Cuba, inquiring about a Cuban national buried at Green-Wood more than 100 years ago.
"Tomas Acea was a cemetery designer in Cuba. We opened his tomb and found some spectacular sculptures inside. This place is a constant discovery," Richman said.