Yellow Fever struck New York with a vengeance in the 1790s. The city’s tightly-packed neighborhoods and close proximity to the water on all sides made it an ideal breeding ground for the mosquito-spread death sentence. Those with the means to do so picked up their lives and fled north of New York to the placid countryside surrounding Greenwich Village, where the disease hadn’t taken hold. The village flourished as New York’s well-to-do flooded northward, and Trinity Church, who had been granted a large parcel of land in the area by Queen Anne in 1707, saw an opportunity for profit.
By 1803, Trinity had constructed St. John’s Chapel fronting Varick Street. Boasting a soaring 214-foot-tall steeple, St. John’s and its accompanying public square across Varick proved to be the magnet for development that Trinity had hoped it would be. In due time, the square was completely surrounded by wealthy and respectable families living in fine Georgian-style homes.
Fearing further spread of disease, no burials were to be performed on the grounds of St. John’s. Rather, the parish reserved a plot of land 12 blocks north of the church to serve as a graveyard for its parishioners. Most wealthy residents shunned the little churchyard, however, preferring to be buried in old family plots downtown. St. John’s graveyard filled up instead with New York’s poor and unfortunate: usually young, often unable to afford a headstone. By the 1860s, the yard had filled up with more than 10,000 burials, and the city had grown up and around it, preventing any further interments.
In 1867, Trinity Church saw dollar signs again as real estate values climbed ever higher in St. John’s fashionable neighborhood. They sold the popular park across from the Chapel to the Hudson River Railroad, who quickly flattened it in favor of an immense freight rail terminal. The noise and smoke quickly killed the neighborhood’s reputation as a decent place to live, and its wealthy residents moved farther north to areas around Washington Square and up 5th Avenue. The days of St. John’s gentility were behind it.
In 1854, a row of expensive homes had been erected on Leroy Street (also known as St. Luke’s Place), across the street from St. John’s poor little neglected burial plot in the village. The graveyard was a blight on the tony new neighborhood’s reputation: poorly kept and filled with trash dumped from the windows of the lingering older tenements abutting its eastern edge. The push quickly began for its removal.
The City made its move in 1896, offering to purchase the plot from Trinity parish. Their offer declined, they called upon their powers of eminent domain, and St. John’s graveyard passed into municipal hands. In September of that year, the announcement was made that anyone wishing to remove the body of a loved one must do so before November 15th, lest having them simply paved over. Trinity, bitter at having its land taken from them by force, refused to move any of the corpses.
The people buried at St. John’s had been largely comprised of the city’s poor and their young children. Most graves had long ago been abandoned, and the vast majority never had a headstone to begin with. By the deadline for disinterment, only 27 bodies had been moved. The rest had their stones buried before being ploughed under and paved over. In 1898, Hudson Park gleamed in polished granite atop the final resting places of thousands of New York’s former residents.
Designed by Carrere and Hastings, the masters behind the Public Library on 5th Avenue, the park was lovely. But even it wasn’t immune to the march of time. Starting in 1939, the strutting paths and tranquil fountains were torn out in favor of a swimming pool, playground, and ballfield.
While digging the foundations for the playground in 1939, workers hit something solid. It was a pint-sized burial vault containing the cast-iron Egyptian-style casket of a 6-year-old girl named Mary Elizabeth Tisdall. According to Trinity Church archives, she had died of “brain congestion” on April 14, 1850. Her casket had a glass window in its lid, revealing a pretty blonde girl in a dainty white silk dress. She was reinterred, back at peace with the thousands of others shrouded beneath the pounding feet of 21st-century little leaguers.
As for St. John’s Chapel, it didn’t fare very well either. Its congregation mostly gone, it was condemned to the wrecking ball by Trinity Church in 1918 when the city wished to widen Varick Street. Historians fought to preserve the landmark, proposing to extend its portico over the new sidewalk and slightly into traffic, allowing it to coexist with the wider street. But Trinity refused to foot the bill, and the church came tumbling down.
All that remains of the church today is a mosaic of its steeple, ignored by most, on the walls of the Canal Street IRT Subway Station. St. John’s was replaced by a depressing wall of white brick, which until recently was home to Verizon Communications. Earlier this year (2012), it was purchased and is currently being renovated into studio and event space for the neighboring TriBeCa Film Festival. The Hudson Freight Terminal fell, too, in favor of an entry ramp for the Holland Tunnel, which began construction in 1920. Today, the block has been renamed St. John’s Park, but remains a shell of its formerly graceful self.
The only physical reminder of St. John’s parish stands on the north side of Hudson Park (renamed J.J. Walker Park in 1947) near Leroy Street: a large stone tombstone dedicated to two fireman killed in the line of duty in 1834. Affixed to it, a plaque proclaiming that “This ground was used as a cemetery by Trinity Parish.” No mention is made of little Mary Elizabeth Tisdall, or of the thousands of other dearly departed New Yorkers slumbering beneath your feet.