After more than a decade of waiting, the Fresh Meadows community cheered the news Tuesday that the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission landmarked the beleaguered historic Brinckerhoff Cemetery.
“We are very happy and will now work with other groups to buy it,” said James Gallagher, president of the Fresh Meadows Homeowners Civic Association, who has led the drive for landmarking.
The property’s current owner, Le Dan Cai, wants to build two houses on the site and asked the LPC in the spring to make a decision on landmarking. The property has been eyed by the city agency for 12 years, but no action had been taken.
Cai bought the land, which is located on 182nd Street, near 73rd Avenue, in 2010. The 45-by-120-foot site is now overgrown with ivy and there are no visible gravestones. The family cemetery dates back to 1730 with the last interment in 1872.
“This cemetery, despite all the changes that have occurred around it, remains one of a handful of sites that directly ties New York City to its earliest days as a Dutch settlement,” said LPC Commission Chairman Robert Tierney.
The burial ground had been sold illegally by the city in 1961 after being erroneously condemned for nonpayment of taxes. That owner admitted later that in the 1980s he buried the remaining gravestones to hide them.
Efforts by the Queens Historical Society 12 years ago to purchase the site were unsuccessful and the property remained in limbo.
Though the property is now protected, Cai can claim a financial hardship and if granted it would reverse the landmark designation. But City Councilman Jim Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) doesn’t believe that will happen in this case.
“It would be a waste of the owner’s time and money,” Gennaro said. “He got it at a relatively low price knowing it was a burial ground. The financial hardship claim is not going to happen.”
Lisi de Bourbon, spokeswoman for the LPC, said that an owner must show the property is incapable of earning a net return of 6 percent. Since 1965, the commission has only had 16 hardship cases, with 13 granted.
“There is no less sympathetic case than this one,” Gennaro said. “As to the owner, he will want to cut his losses since the property has zero development value. The price will be set accordingly.”
The owner also could file a suit seeking to overturn the decision.
The councilman said it’s unlikely the city would purchase the property, which was sold to Cai for $105,000. “No city agency would want to maintain it,” he said. “You could use city dollars to pay for the property and then turn it over to a nonprofit group to maintain it.”
Although the Parks Department does own several historic burial grounds, most are within larger park facilities and some are maintained by private groups.
Cai’s spokesman, Kelvin Zou, said Tuesday that no decision has been made yet on how to proceed with the property.
Among those supporting the landmarking efforts were two Brinckerhoff descendants, William Manger Jr. and Matthew Brinckerhoff. Manger, a banker who lives in Manhattan, testified in favor of the proposal at an LPC hearing.
The Brinckerhoffs were prosperous Dutch farmers, who had large land holdings in the borough.
Reached on Tuesday, Manger said he was thrilled the site had been landmarked. “I am very pleased,” he said. “The LPC did the right thing.”
The descendant believes a group will come together to buy the site. “I’m optimistic they will be able to do it and I plan to stay involved with this,” Manger added.
He said it could take “a whole lineup of people” to provide funding and that the city could help and make it a public-private partnership.
Matthew Brinckerhoff, a Manhattan lawyer who lives in Brooklyn, discovered that his grandmother, six times removed, named Aeltie, was the first to be buried at the site and hers was the only gravestone written in Dutch.
A 1919 city survey of the site found 77 graves, recorded the inscriptions and pinpointed their locations. The last known photograph of Aeltie’s gravestone was taken in 1935.
“It’s undeniable that there are remains there,” Brinckerhoff said. “It’s fantastic about the landmarking; a welcome development and justified.”
The two distant cousins want the headstones recovered and put back and if some are missing, for each grave to be marked in some manner.
Gallagher said he has been in touch with organizations such as the Queens County Farm Museum and Maple Grove Cemetery and others to help with purchasing the property. He has a commitment from Manger that the St. Nicholas Society will help.
“We must act quickly,” Gallagher said. “We need to form a nonprofit to administer, develop and maintain the area.”
He also plans to meet with Borough President Helen Marshall for input on funding.
Gennaro said that the landmarking “was the big domino. I’m confident we’ll be able to preserve the site befitting its history.”
He also would like to uncover the gravestones. “We need to preserve and learn from the site with dignity,” Gennaro added. “It’s a treasure trove.”
Twelve other cemeteries in the city have been designed as landmarks in the past. In Queens, they include: the Lawrence Graveyard in Astoria, the Lawrence Cemetery in Bayside, the Moore-Jackson Cemetery in Woodside, Prospect Cemetery in Jamaica, Remsen Cemetery in Rego Park and the Richard Cornell Graveyard in Far Rockaway.