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History

EXPLORE OUR HISTORY

Established in 1863, Woodlawn is an active, 40-acre non-sectarian cemetery. An oasis in an urban setting, more than 310,000 individuals are interred on its grounds and it attracts over 100,000 visitors from around the world each year.

Recognized as one of America’s most historically significant properties, Woodlawn was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011, joining a rarified roster of 2500 sites nationwide. Described by the National Parks Service as “a popular final resting place for the famous and powerful,” the cemetery is distinguished by memorials that “represent the largest and finest collection of funerary art in the country.”

Woodlawn was established by a group of prominent New Yorkers who envisioned a burial ground easily accessible from Manhattan. It is designed in the landscape-lawn style popular after the Civil War, which emphasizes the relationship between landscape and classical architecture. Its curvilinear road system provides views of large, singular monuments on family plots and circular lots. Propelled by location, clientele, and unprecedented wealth, Woodlawn rapidly grew to become the outdoor showplace of distinctive masterworks you see today.

WOODLAWN…MORE THAN A CEMETERY

The cemetery’s natural environment is as impressive as its built legacy. Its park-like setting is home to an extensive array of flora, fauna, birds, and insects virtually lost from much of the area’s environs, and it is also a refuge for local wildlife. Its horticultural beauty is evident in the extraordinary collection of specimen plants, including five of New York City’s “Great Trees.”

The intentions of the past, present, and future converge at Woodlawn, reflecting a broad spectrum of American history, heritage and culture.

In addition to being a historical masterpiece, Woodlawn provides tours and events designed to educate and connect the past with the present. Woodlawn also serves as an outdoor environmental classroom as many come to view and study the more than 140 varieties of trees in our newly designated arboretum.

With our unique history, educational opportunities and unique setting, Woodlawn is proud to be “More Than a Cemetery.”

RAILROADS AND THE GILDED AGE

In 1882, Jay Gould, the infamous financier, purchased the largest lot in the cemetery and proceeded to build what was considered the finest mausoleum of the day. Gould’s project was publicized in a variety of publications, inspiring many entrepreneurs to construct family tombs at Woodlawn. Huntington, Dodge, Bostwick, Webb, and Warner are among the hundreds of self made millionaires who commissioned mausolea that reflected their tastes and travel, incorporated work by celebrated sculptors, and artisans and celebrated their role in New York society. Greek temples, Egyptian pyramids and French chapels were built by the late 19th celebrities who became famous for grand mansions in Manhattan, extravagant Newport “cottages,” and waterfront estates on Long Island’s Gold Coast.

BRONX TALES

In 1898, when The Bronx officially became one of the five boroughs that make up New York City, the roads bordering the cemetery were expanded to prepare for the traffic that would result following the development of the acres of land north of Manhattan. Louis Haffen, Louis Risse, and Louis Heintz were the three men who spearheaded the construction of the Grand Concourse and the development of roads that would lead to their final resting places in Woodlawn. Borough President Henry Bruckner is at Woodlawn and one of the cemetery’s most visited gravesites is that of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who began his political career in the Bronx. Even “The Powerbroker,” Robert Moses, the man known for building the Cross Bronx Expressway, is memorialized among those who built the Borough, ironically entombed in a mausoleum not far from the Major Deegan Expressway.

JAZZ CORNER

When Duke Ellington purchased a large family lot in Woodlawn in 1959, several years before he died, he was making a strong statement. New York was his home and where he wanted to be remembered. He moved the remains of his parents to Woodlawn and established the tradition of jazz musicians being buried in the city where they played with those who played their music. The jazz greats memorialized near Ellington include Miles Davis, Max Roach, Lionel Hampton, and Ornette Coleman. None of these artists are native New Yorkers; all of them are at rest at a crossroads that is known as Woodlawn’s ‘Jazz Corner’. Trumpets, saxophones, musical scores, and song titles grace the granite monuments that celebrate the lives of those who created and performed America’s music.

THE SUBWAY, BROADWAY AND THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE

On November 6, 1927 thousands of people lined the streets of Harlem when the hearse carrying Florence Mills to Woodlawn headed for the Woodlawn Cemetery. Mills learned to dance from Bill Bojangles Robinson and rose to fame following her lead role in the production of Shuffle Along. This dramatic scene of a celebrated performer being laid to rest was repeated when WC Handy, “the father of the Blues,” George M. Cohan “the man who owned Broadway,” and Bert Williams, “the funniest man I ever saw” were brought to Woodlawn. In 1917, the Lexington Line of the New York City Subway System (IRT#4) was completed, connecting Woodlawn to Harlem and Broadway and enabling the fans of celebrated entertainers to pay homage to their idols and newspaper reporters write accounts of some of the largest funerals in New York history.