Brooklyn, From Top to Bottom

When Open House New York convinced the owners of more than 80 rarely seen architectural spaces to pry apart their doors for a weekend and welcome public visitors for free, I didn’t rush to rubberneck at swank townhouses (though neither was I surprised that these tours filled up first). The sites that intrigued me, it turned out, were not living rooms but spaces for the dead.

My tour began with the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch, across from the grand entrance to Prospect Park on Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway. The memorial’s bronze sculptures of Civil War soldiers and martial goddesses of victory had always struck me as stuffy and a bit pious. But a chance to climb the arch’s internal staircase and take in the view from the top offered a grittier interaction with history. The curious lined up under the arch and awaited their turn to climb the interior staircase—a disused wrought-iron spiral powdered in dust. The staircase was purely utilitarian, but at each landing its railings ended in finials shaped like axes. Was this a military reference, I wondered, or just a chestnut of the Beaux Arts tool kit? Inexplicably, a more contemporary artistic gesture—a string of rough globes shaped from twigs—hung from the ceiling, dangling down alongside the stairs.

At the top, we visitors emerged through a hatch to a small roof deck to absorb views of the park, farmers’ market, public library, neighborhood, and Manhattan skyline beyond. Up close, the wind-whipped goddesses on the top of the arch took on a greater sense of movement—especially when a ranger informed us that one of them had almost toppled to the ground after a storm in the 1970s.

Back on terra firma, I looked up at the bronze frontispieces and picked out details that the ranger had mentioned. The artist, Frederick MacMonnies, had portrayed himself leading the group of soldiers gathered on the left side of the arch. On the right, in a tableau of the Union navy, was a rare depiction of an African-American sailor. The human hand became visible in this staid work of nineteenth-century art, and I warmed to it.

From the heights of the arch, I descended to the depths of Green-Wood Cemetery’s catacombs, which were advertised on the Open House web site as having been closed to the public for 165 years. No doubt expecting an eerie skull-lined tomb like the one that lurks underneath Paris, a crowd of about 500—one of Open House’s biggest turnouts—showed up at Green-Wood’s Gothic Revival gates. Was it possible that a tour of a cemetery had out-ranked a peek inside Manhattan’s high-end homes?

A guide gamely led the throng, using a bullhorn to project facts about Green-Wood, its history as the site of a Revolutionary War battle, and some of its more famous residents, including Leonard Bernstein. The catacombs turned out to be small, above ground, and as white-walled as a Chelsea gallery, bones and skulls stacked in tiers and hidden behind marble wall plaques. If the cemetery is a necropolis, then the catacombs are its high-rise apartments and the grassy expanse of grave sites en plein air are pastoral suburban sprawl. Comparing the dank bunker of the catacombs to the sun-dappled slopes of Green-Wood’s hills, I decided that in death, if not in life, I would prefer a suburban model to an urban one. And on sunny October days I will always choose to be outside—atop an arch or beside a grave—rather than inside an apartment or a catacomb.

Categories: Cities