Accessible only through the campus of York College, Prospect Cemetery in Jamaica has a storied history that less than 20 years ago was almost lost.
But on Tuesday, experts in historic preservation from Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn teamed with American and French college students to take the next step in Prospect’s remarkable comeback.
Andrew Farren of the Prospect Cemetery Board and Richard Moylan, president of Green-Wood, said the joint effort also included the group Preservation Volunteers and the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
“Fifteen years ago, all this was overgrown with trees, vines and litter,” Farren said. “It had become a dumping ground. Homeless people were living here.”
Established in 1668, the cemetery is considered the first colonial burial ground in Queens and one of the oldest in the city. It contains families with names like Van Wyck, Sutphin and Brinkerhoff.
Slowly but steadily, with financial help from places like the Greater Jamaica Development Corp. and expertise from landmark and preservation organizations, it has been reclaimed from time and nature.
Grass, barely present a few years ago, has taken root again. They also have gotten identities on as many of the headstones as they can, getting precise geographic coordinates for their locations.
Volunteers on Tuesday were uprighting and repairing headstones in the Vienot family plot, stones that had been toppled over so long ago they left impressions eight inches or more in the dirt.
Frank Morelli, manager of preservation and restoration at Green-Wood, said even lifting the toppled stones is no easy task.
“Those can weigh 300 or 400 pounds,” he said. “Those are marble, about 165 pounds per cubic foot. Granite ones are even heavier.”
Farren said Moylan, who has an interest in historic cemeteries, offered his assistance.
“We need help,” Farren said. “And Green-Wood has a lot of expertise with historic preservation.”
Moylan said the students from Preservation Volunteers would be working with Green-Wood experts for the remainder of the week before heading up to the Bronx for another project.
Damien Roussell and Loic Pons said they are architecture students participating in the program as part of their schooling. Alienor Dore is studying urban planning.
“Learning preservation is part of that,” she said.
Evgeney Kiritchenko said even the family plot they worked on was no accident.
“They told us we would work on stones with French names,” he said.