A community group has formed to investigate the possible existence of a centuries old Quaker burial ground where a developer has announced plans to build a large housing project, as the property’s owner vehemently denies the group’s claims.
The Ad Hoc Committee for the Preservation of the Friends (Quaker) Cemetery, believes that the proposed site of an 11-story affordable housing complex at Herschell Street and Westchester Avenue, located on St. Peter’s Episcopal Church grounds, may be landmarked and contain a Quaker gravesite.
Their concerns are based on documents they reviewed dating back to the 1800s and their own observations of the parcel in question. They claim that they have located several small Quaker burial markers from the late 19th century on the site.
The AHCPFC has made NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission aware of their concerns.
According to the LPC, only part of the land in the lot in question, known as lot 6, is protected in a 1976 landmarking of St. Peter’s Church and its churchyard.
Tom Vasti, a member of the group and an East Bronx History Forum officer, said the construction site was a Quaker meeting hall into the 19th century, which is evidenced in maps from the 1800s.
According to historical records, there could be a 17th century burial ground, and another record contains at least 75 burials, according to burial list dating back to the 1850s, he said.
Sandi Lusk, a committee member, said that a group of the amateur historians and community activists which include members of her group, the Westchester Square Zerega Improvement Organization, believes that Quaker site was sold to St. Peter’s Church in the 1920s with the explicit condition that the Quaker burial ground at the location would be maintained by the church.
“We asked LPC to visit,” said Lusk. “There is a lot of confusion as to whether the lot is landmarked.”
The committee asked LPC to determine where exactly the landmarked area of St. Peter’s Church and its graveyard starts and ends, an archeological survey to determine if any remains are in the ground at the proposed development site at 2450 Westchester Avenue, and an unequivocal confirmation from church lawyers that the site is not landmarked and contains no remains.
The St. Peter’s Episcopal landmarking documents in 1976 define the landmarked area as Lot 18, where the church is located, and part of Lot 6 “extending from the western boundary of the cemetery from Westchester Avenue to Butler Place.”
On the document there is a handwritten drawing with what appear to be measurements of the lots and surrounding area, but this doesn’t appear to give a clear indication to the layperson as to what is landmarked.
In response to the Ad Hoc Committee’s letter, the LPC stated it has been in touch with St. Peter’s Episcopal and that it is its understanding that the proposed development is not on the landmarked portion of Lot 6.
“Additionally, LPC will review the drawings for the new building to make sure the proposed development is off of the landmark site,” stated the LPC spokeswoman. “We have also spoken to the church about archaeologically testing the site to avoid burials.”
An attorney for the church stated in response to a Bronx Times inquiry concerning the Ad Hoc Committee’s letter that the church has been a vital part of Westchester Square since its founding in 1693, and wants to be very clear on the concerns raised.
“St. Peter’s takes its responsibility as the steward of its cemetery and surrounding land very seriously, and no development has or will occur on any burial grounds – Quaker or otherwise,” said St. Peter’s attorney. “The church and its team have already undertaken extensive efforts to ensure this, including reviewing land use records and archives, testing the ground with radar technology and consulting with the Landmarks Preservation Commission.”
The attorney stated in summary that the committee’s documents “do not provide any new information,” and because they are documents designating administrative boundaries, they do not provide any indication or location of actual burial sites.
“The church and its team have spent great time and effort to gather far more information than is provided in these administrative documents,” said St. Peter’s attorney. “Our investigations confirm that there are no burial plots in the development site.”
The attorney added: “For clarity, before any construction begins, we will independently confirm our findings. A third-party archaeological investigation is being undertaken prior to any development and we fully expect that this will confirm our conclusions.”
Preliminary plans for a 11-story apartment complex built in two phases and containing a total of approximately 363 apartments were presented to Community Board 10 at a Monday, January 7 committee meeting.
According to a previous Bronx Times report on this subject, the church is looking to lease part of its property near Herschell Street for 99 years so that it can raise funds it needs to support itself and remain in the community for the long term.
CB 10’s Housing and Zoning Committee didn’t take any actions at the meeting because plans seemed preliminary and still fluid, according to board members.
Construction company The Bluestone Organization was not available for comment.