Recently, I heard about an opportunity to visit a place I had been past a number of times, but never entered — the cemetery of the Village of New Utrecht on 16th Avenue between 84th and 85th Streets in what is presently Bensonhurst.
Ancient New Utrecht, Brooklyn, now co-terminous with Kings County, was once just one, albeit the most important, of six towns that made up Kings County, delineated by British rulers in 1683. “KIngs” refers to the Restoration British monarch at the time, King Charles II.
The history of Brooklyn’s towns is complicated… but the $2 history is: The county’s original towns were Brooklyn (today’s downtown and stretching east and south as far as Bedford-Stuyvesant and Sunset Park), Bushwick, Flatbush, Flatlands, Gravesend and New Utrecht (New Lots was carved out of Flatbush later), and after a series of secessions and reorganizations, Brooklyn, by then a city, managed to annex all other towns and cities in Kings County in 1896 — only to consolidate with Greater NYC in 1898.
In the Dutch colonial era (1626-1664) New Utrecht (pronounced YOU-trekt) was settled by Dutch West India Company director Cornelius Van Werckhoven; after he died unexpectedly, his successor, Jacques Cortelyou, bestowed the name Nieuw Utrecht, after Van Werckhoven’s home, Utrecht, Netherlands. The original town boundaries encompassed today’s Bay Ridge, Borough Park, and Bensonhurst.
Bensonhurst, by the way, and Benson Avenue, are named for the Benson family, which included the first attorney general of New York State, Egbert Benson (1746-1833) who was also a US Representative. He was also a historian and author, publishing A Memoir on Dutch Names of Places. Though the Bensons owned property in New Utrecht in the colonial era, Egbert’s grave is in historic Prospect Cemetery in Jamaica, Queens.
Inside New Utrecht Cemetery you will find gravestones nearly all of whose inscriptions face east, away from whatever purchase you can get on them with a camera. Ignored for the most part by Bensonhursters, this is one of the oldest remnants of European civilization in Brooklyn as it’s a burying site established in 1654 — even before the Reformed Church congregation arose in 1677 and took over the grounds.
It includes the family plots of the earliest New Utrecht families, including the Van Brunts, Cortelyous, Cowenhovens, Cropseys, and Bennetts; a communal, unmarked grave of American Revolutionary War soldiers; and an area near the intersection of today’s 16th Avenue and 84th Street where church members of African descent (both slave and free) were buried. Approximately 1,300 people have been interred in the cemetery during the past three centuries. [LPC report]
A couple of times per year, New Utrecht Cemetery is open to the public for tours conducted by Friends of Historic New Utrecht President Dave Elligers. The cemetery contains the graves of descendants of Brooklyn’s earliest families: Cortelyou, Nostrand, Van Brunt, DeNyse, Cowenhoven, Bennett, Emmons and Lefferts. The Cemetery was the site of the Reformed congregation’s first church (1700-1827). The Cemetery’s monuments commemorate several men involved in the events of the American Revolution, veterans of the Civil War, farmers, teachers, doctors, saloon keepers and at least one murder victim.
As it happens, there’s an old church located right next to the cemetery, but it’s not the church associated with it. Visitors to the area sometimes mistake it for the Reformed Church, but this is the former St. John Reformed German Evangelical Lutheran Church consecrated in 1898. Since 1974 it has been the Metropolitan Baptist Church; the Reformed Church stood here only until 1827.
From 1776-1783, British troops occupied the site and it was here that patriot General Nathaniel Woodhull was detained. According to legend, but in an undocumented story, he was struck by a British officer after refusing to utter the phrase “God save the king.” He later died of wounds suffered in captivity. In 1916 The Daughters of The American Revolution dedicated a monument to General Nathaniel Woodhull here, which I did not see while visiting.
The heart of old New Utrecht is the New Utrecht Reformed Church. It was built in 1828 at what would become 18th Avenue and 84th Street but what was then at the crossroads of the Road from New Utrecht to Flatbush (now 18th Avenue) and Kings Highway (part of it survives as the wider section of 84th Street between 16th and 18th Avenues) and contains some stones from its predecessor, along with Tiffany style stained glass. The bell of the two New Utrecht Reformed Churches has tolled to mark the death of every U.S. President…beginning with George Washington in 1799… and in the 1990s rung to mark the deaths of Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra (the neighborhood of Bensonhurst that surrounds the church had been mostly Italian, until recent years).
The original New Utrecht Reformed Church was first built about 1699 (the congregation dates to 1677) and was located just to the west of where Metropolitan Baptist Church stands now until it burned down in 1827.
New Utrecht Cemetery (I’ll call it NUC to save my fingers from hereon) is suffused with burials whose names you will find on Brooklyn street maps such as Benson, Cozine, Lott and Cowenhoven (Kouwenhoven), a name no longer on maps but can be seen on older gazetteers in Brooklyn and Queens.
In any older cemetery, I am chiefly fascinated by the older stones from the 18th and very early 19th Centuries that were made from brownstone, which has ironically held up much better than newer stones erected later. While limestone and marble monuments suffered greatly from acid rain and pollution, the carved brownstones are still quite legible some two centuries and more after they were carved. The brownstones’ only weakness is that rain can occasionally seep in and cause the front of the stones to fall off, but that happens relatively infrequently.
Older stones frequently have lengthy inscriptions and poems. The stone of Catherine Calderhead, who died in 1808 at age 27, reads:
A soul prepar’d needs no delays
The summons come, the saint obeys
Swift was her flight and short the road
She clos’d her eyes and saw her God
The flesh rests here till Jesus come
And claims the creature from the tomb.
And, fans of orthography can revel in the serifed font, the use of the “long s” and the additional contractions popular in 1808. Some words rhyme which no longer do.
Older gravesites are located near the 16th Avenue end of the cemetery. An empty area, devoid of markers, is reportedly the site of slave burials.
Civil War veteran Captain Henry Arens and his son Theodore. Arens ran a hotel/roadhouse at today’s Cropsey Avenue and Bay Parkway.
There are many members of the Emmons family in NUC, though some spell it Emmans. Emmons Avenue is a main drag in Sheepshead Bay, facing the bay.
I had mentioned that Egbert Benson, of the Brooklyn Bensons and a US Representative and attorney general, is interred in Jamaica’s Prospect Cemetery. This Egbert Benson is younger (1789-1866). Families often repeated names for multiple family members in the colonial era. He had a son named… you have one guess… Egbert Benson.
Would you like a historic cemetery view out your windows? This private home on 85th Street has just that.
Once again, some Brooklyn street names, Van Brunt and Nostrand. Brooklyn streets, especially Dutch names, get their names from families and not one particular member.
Friends of Historic New Utrecht President Dave Elligers stops at the gravesite of an ancestor, William Van Brunt (d. 1790). There are more Van Brunts than any other family in the cemetery.
The Physician’s Monument was built in 1910 in memory of Dr. James E. DuBois and his assistant Dr. John L. Crane, who died fighting an outbreak of Yellow Fever in New Utrecht around the turn of the century. The monument was cut in two during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, with the obelisk barely missing the Metropolitan Baptist Church by nine inches.
Catharine Duryea died in 1808 and she has an unusual prose poem at the bottom of her monument:
Ye living, ponder & apply
To the prepared only death is a
Welcome messenger. It unties
the load from their gall’d shoulders
& bids the weary traveler to repose.
Her mother, Nelly Duryee (d. 1781) also has an inscription, this one more foreboding:
Behold and see as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now you soon will be
Prepare for death and follow me
I decided to head up 18th Avenue, which is also a colonial-era route though it doesn’t look like it today. The Road From New Utrecht to Flatbush once occupied the route of 18th Avenue from the Narrows to 53rd Street, where it followed the present path of Old New Utrecht Road to another vanished road called Lott’s Lane, which went east into Flatbush.
I found plenty of interesting things on 18th Avenue on Christmas Eve 2007, the last time I was there. I’m quite familiar with the route because of all my years in Bay Ridge and bicycling forays through Bensonhurst.
I have been paying mnore attention to sidewalk business signs lately, especially the older ones that are easy to spot, as there just seemed to be more attention paid to esthetics. Though Bensonhurst through much of the 20th Century was traditionally Italian, it’s been increasingly occupied by immigrants from Russia and South Asia. However many longstanding businesses retain their Italian heritage, like this meat market at #7714, sporting Italian flag colors of red, green and white.
The Loyal Order of Moose is a fraternal and service organization founded in Louisville, KY in 1888 by Dr. John Henry Wilson. The organization was tainted by racism for its first few decades and did not fully admit African Americans or any nonwhites until the 1970s (though there has been a Women of the Moose division since 1913). Nevertheless, it has attracted a number of US politicians, including Presidents Warren Harding, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and a present West Virginia senator, Joe Manchin. Several entertainers and athletes have also been Moose.
Speaking of societies, I counted at least 4 Italian social clubs on 18th Avenue and there are, or were, likely more. Many take their name from saints or specific locales in the old country, many in Sicily. Are they fronts for mob activities? A few. Most, not.
S.A.S Italian Records, #7713, was founded in 1967 by Italian immigrants Ciro and Rita Conte. The store sells recordings from the old country but also features CDs by Italian-American artists such as Sinatra, Dean Martin, Al Martino, Connie Francis, Louis Prima and also imports such as music, movies, beauty and bath products, soccer novelties, housewares and playing cards.
The A&J Mini Market recently moved out of its corner location at 18th Avenue and 70th, revealing a much older market sign for L&C.
Another classic sidewalk sign at Kersner Furs, #6909 18th Avenue.
The Santander Bank at 13th Avenue and 65th Street (I don’t know what bank this was originally, and the Municipal Archive photos don’t help) has a pair of bank lampposts on 18th. I imagine that the lights are there to try to prevent night break-in robberies.
One of the rare NYC theaters named for a mayor (the only one perhaps), the Walker, at #6401, was named for Mayor Jimmy Walker, opening in 1927 with Walker appearing on opening night. The theater seated over 2200. It lasted surprisingly long as a performance venue: by 1980 it was still hosting acts like Helen “I Am Woman” Reddy, Kay “Rock & Roll Waltz” Starr and Rosemary Clooney, who as a 70s kid I knew only from her Coronet paper towel commercials. (“Extra value is what you get when you buy Coronet!”). Before the cable TV era, top prizefights like the 1975 Ali-Frazier Thrilla In Manila were beamed on closed-circuit feed here. It closed for good as a movie venue in 1988. A Target store, or Tar-zhay as they call it in Long Island, currently occupies the site.
A close look at the exterior reveals a trio of William Shakespeares. To me, they look like they could be caricatures of “Gentleman Jimmy.” But maybe I am being imaginative.
Another classic red, green and white sign for an Italian establishment, J&V Famous Pizza, #6322 18th Avenue. The JoJo is a hero sandwich.
The only remaining Bari Pork Store in Brooklyn, with a traditional red, white and green sign complete with an Animal Cannibal pig holding a string of sausages. “This was my uncle Porky!”
Time to make a move for home, at a classic BMT 1915-vintage station. The Sea Beach stations were renovated recently but thankfully, most of their original esthetics were preserved.
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