Place Category: Parks and Playgrounds
The history of this lot, which serves as a park and an entryway to the Cornell Burial Ground, is closely intertwined with the restoration of the cemetery that adjoins it. Cornell Cemetery, despite its small size, is a historically significant part of the Queens landscape. On August 23, 1687, Richard Cornell (1625-1693), an ironmaster from Flushing, New York, purchased all of the area now known as Rockaway from John Palmer, who had inherited the land two years earlier. In 1690, Cornell settled on the Rockaway penninsula with his wife Elizabeth and their five sons and two daughters. He built a house on Far Rockaway, near what is now Beach 19th Street. This home was likely the first ever built on Rockaway by a European settler.
The Cornell family was one of the most influential in New York history. Ezra Cornell (1807–1874) founded Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, which opened in 1868. Alonzo Cornell (1822–1904), Ezra’s son, was governor of New York from 1880-1883. Katharine Cornell (1893–1974) was one of America’s most respected actresses.
Several members of the Cornell family are buried in the cemetery, though it is not known whether Richard Cornell himself is buried here. Thomas Cornell (1703-1764), who represented Queens in the Colonial Assembly of the State of New York for 27 years, is among those whose remains lie in the cemetery. The last interment at the cemetery was probably in 1821. The site is one of the few 18th century cemeteries still in existence in New York City. In 1970, the cemetery was designated a landmark.
The cemetery fell into disrepair for a period in the 1980s. Weeds and debris filled the lot, and several of the tombstones disappeared. In 1991, Stanley Cogan and the Queens Historical Society formed the Cornell Cemetery Corporation, a restoration task force of community members concerned about the state of the cemetery. The group cleaned the area, recovered some of the cemetery’s missing headstones and artifacts, and initiated an archaeological excavation to study the cemetery.
Though the state of the cemetery improved, there was still no easy way to access the historical burial ground. The Cornell Cemetery Corporation approached City officials about transferring the plot of land adjacent to the cemetery from the Department of General Services to Park. In 1992, Parks took possession of the lot, which serves as a sitting area and the entranceway to the cemetery. The lot, which was vacant in the early 1990s, was the former site of the American Cable Company. In 1997, mayoral funds were used to install fences and guardrails at the site. Today, while restoration continues on the Cornell Burial Ground, the maintenance of this adjoining lot ensures that an important piece of Queens history will be preserved for future generations.
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