Vanderbilt: Right to Trespass
Nick Testa: …dip down. You could climb over that easily.
Brian Cincotta: Well, yeah, that’s the holes. You don’t really need to climb… This was, obviously, you could tell that was ripped out and they put fence under it in multiple spots too. And also there’s fence that they didn’t even take off, but that was separated from the rest of the fence.
Nick Testa: You could see it pulled down, someone definitely climbed in there.
Mike Matteo: I think at least more than one someone, yeah.
Brian Cincotta: Yeah.
*sound of footsteps in the woods*
Right now, I’m with two teenagers, my cousin Nick and his friend Brian, and we’re in the woods—more specifically, we’re in High Rock Park in Staten Island. When I was younger, my friends and I spent a lot of time in these woods, and at our eventual destination-the Vanderbilt Family Mausoleum.
We hiked in from the parking lot, and went up the Blue & Yellow trail. This eventually runs parallel to a private cemetery for the ultra-rich, separated by the crustiest chain link fence you’ve ever seen.
Brian Cincotta: You can see like the patches too, from like the amount of times that it’s been patched and the amount of different types of fences.
Nick Testa: well, you could see a layer of new fence behind it. Newer.
Mike Matteo: So this is one of the, this was the whole, me and my friends used to go in when we were probably only a little bit older than you guys.
Nick Testa: You’ve been here? Don’t wanna get tetanus
*chain link rattles as we duck through the fence*
*sound of footsteps in the woods* Spread throughout this massive property is the main mausoleum, and several smaller cemeteries. Only direct male descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt (the tycoon with a railroad monopoly), their families, and unmarried daughters can go in the crypt, everyone else gets buried in another plot. This is a big cemetery.
Nick Testa: This is like wild. You could, there’s such a difference between this side of the fence and like the public side. So like the roads are different. It’s just cool. Now we’re just in like the wild, right? This is, this is considered a path. Look at all this glass.
*sound of footsteps in the woods*I think it’s time to mention… the mausoleum is on private property. It’s more like a suggestion than a hard law. All the no trespassing signs have been drawn on, are hanging upside down, and glass from beer bottles glisten, half buried under the trees. The grounds here are beautiful, but they’re treated with the same respect as an unfinished basement.
Mike Matteo: Well, I think. This goes into what, what I was saying about like all the… actually, I don’t know. This looks like pretty heavy duty though. I don’t know if this is from a bottle or if this is from like a window or something.
Nick Testa: Look at it. There’s so much of it. If I pick that up, am I gonna get cut?
Mike Matteo: Uh, I wouldn’t pick it up.
*rocks get kicked down a trail while hiking* Besides being hazardous, this place is supposed to be haunted, at least according to the legends. Most of them involve seeing ghosts at midnight, but I’ve personally heard two different stories.
First, if you take a picture in front of the tomb, you’ll see orbs, or distorted faces, or vague figures behind people, or even that people in the frame won’t appear at all. The other one, potentially inspired by the Vanderbilt family’s love of taxidermy, is that everyone interred in this crypt wasn’t buried, they were propped up in place, stuffed after their death.
*sound of footsteps in the woods*And now I don’t particularly believe in any of this, but something draws people to the Mausoleum, and the tall tales live on
Jay Weichun: I remember a friend telling me ‘oh, there’s stained glass on the roof. And one kid was drinking and he broke through the stained glass and he died right on top of the grave!’ And I’m like, my God. And I don’t wanna hang out there.Why? Like, why would I wanna do this? I don’t want to go to where like a kid died. I would go to a boardwalk or something.
This is Jay Weichun, a documentary filmmaker, professor, and Staten Island native.
Jay Weichun: What sets the Vanderbilt Mausoleum apart from all of these other spaces on Staten Island is that it’s pretty much demolition proof. The Vanderbilt Mausoleum is on the National Registry of Historic Places. Ya know, I would say the Vanderbilts still would carry a little punch right… no one’s going to build over, or destroy, or otherwise uhh do away with a mausoleum right? That mausoleum is not going anywhere.
*sound of footsteps in the woods, eerie wind* I remember once, when I went with some of my friends to Vanderbilt. It was this one guy’s first time up on the roof and he said “ya know someone told me a kid fell off of this and died.” I think I wasn’t paying attention and said something like “yeah that doesn’t shock me,” and then I went back to trying to freak someone else out with the eerie graffiti up there.
And now I was floored when two different people I spoke to brought up this story, one was Jay and the other is Pat Salmon, a professor, author, and the retired Curator of History at the Staten Island Museum
*idle chatter in a café* Pat Salmon: Like 17 or 18 years ago, Alfred Vanderbilt III. Took a group of …wanted to take a group of historians and arts people up to the mausoleum. So he had gone ahead with the, with the man who had the key, which was Moravian Cemetery, to open the gate. So they opened the gate, they went up there and what did they find?
Pat Salmon: But they found this young man dead on the steps of the mausoleum, and nobody was really sure. Was it? Was it a suicide? Was it he was there partying or hanging out? Did he fall off by accident? But he was, he was dead and we had to reschedule because Alfred was like so shook up about the whole thing that we rescheduled and we had to go back about…I’m gonna say several weeks later we returned there and when we returned there, one end of the mausoleum to the other end was covered in graffiti
*gentle acoustic guitar* There’s a strange tragedy around some of the deaths at Vanderbilt. It seems like the worst is always assumed. Even the story Jay heard paints the deceased in a negative light.
Another example is of this is someone named Patricia Krischhock. In 1967, she was crushed by the iron gate that separates the Vanderbilt plot from the public cemetery. *A metal gate squeaks in the wind* A Times article I found says she was closing the gate after heading to the tomb, but Pat Salmon told me she heard a different story.
She heard that Patricia was visiting a grave and saw the gate was open. She went over to fix it on her own, fearful it would hurt someone else and the gate fell on her.
Learning about Patricia gave me pause. Me and my friends would come here after almost pushing each other into nearby ponds, and other goofy shit like that. And then finding out a few people potentially met their ends doing the same thing that I was doing could really lead to some soul searching. Why do so many people come here recreationally?
I figured, since me and some teens were already up on the roof, I’d ask them about the draw of places like this. *gentle acoustic guitar ends*
Nick Testa: We were in front of the whole memorial and now we walked up this path and now we’re at, we’re at where that domes at the top. We could see overhead, just where we were standing. Brian, don’t go up to the edge. Can we stand on this? Is this gonna collapse?
Mike Matteo: No, it’s not gonna collapse. It’s stone.
Nick Testa: I’m not, we’re only going like this far. I’m not like… Oh my God!
Brian Cincotta: Yeah. Cuz I, because since they’re like desolate areas, I find that, I find it like the vibes, I find it very peaceful and lonesome. Even though it’s lonesome. It could be very nice
Privacy is the big reason why I went to the mausoleum. Me and my friends, we wanted to get away and have a space that was just ours, at least as much as private property could be ours. One thing was always strange about Vanderbilt, and it wasn’t the constant possibility that you’d be running back to the fence line because you thought you heard groundskeepers coming to chase you out.
What’s weird is that it’s privacy sure, but it’s a shared privacy. You’d see the traces of other people—beer bottles, wrappers, and the like— when you’re trying to get away from other people. *sound of footsteps in the woods, a campfire and crickets chirping at night*
Jay Weichun: There is kind of this feeling of, of wanting to get away or, or to find a space, especially at that age. You know, we, we just wanted a place, you know, when I was in middle school, we just wanted a place to, you know, light off fireworks pretty much. Um, and also, you know, Staten Island is a very NIMBY place.
It’s very much like, like the neighbors are always surveilling the neighborhood, right? Um, you know, like my… I would get calls from my neighbor all the time, like, Yeah, there’s some guy walking up your driveway. I was like, yeah, no, that’s my friend who’s black. I’m sorry about that. You know? So I think you, I think there’s this, there’s impulse to escape the surveillance, you know, and, and to, to find a place where you can just, uh, let loose a little bit.
The desire for privacy isn’t unique to the suburbs, but something about Staten Island makes it seem like a dire need. Vanderbilt was the most accessible place for my friends, but it was far from the only abandoned hangout on Staten Island.
Jay Weichun: There’s different places that serve that purpose. In one way it’s a geographic place, right, but in another ways I think it’s kind of cultural. Almost like your zoned public school.
I’m also realizing now that I didn’t go into this hike with the best of intentions, and what I mean by that is—I think I was just hoping for a magic bullet. I was more concerned with getting a soundbite and missed what was playing out in front of me. By the end of our hike, Nick and Brian really latched onto the idea of treating this place with respect. They found an appreciation for what is still a burial ground and that’s totally different from the experience I had when I was their age.
Nick Testa: So like we’re coming here restfully and just like documenting it, these like doors, and like there’s kids that come here just vandalize it that’s the one purpose they have for coming here. Really? Like what’s the point of that? Why come out all the way here and disrespect it like that?
Mike Matteo: Would you be worried about your friends like maybe not having the same respect for it that you guys have?
Nick Testa: Some of them
Brian Cincotta: Yeah, I would feel that some of them, because we’re teenagers, we make teen, we’re teenagers. Teenagers make dumb mistakes. So probably some teenagers can come around and just mess around
*Brian and Nick see a group of people their age heading up the trail towards us*
Nick Testa: like do you think these kids are going to like,
Brian Cincotta: Nah, they’re not. They’re straight up messing around. It’s just, it’s like the, it’s like the will of being a teenager that there’s like not people around. So like, so it’s like, it’s like, it’s like it’s being a teenager. So it’s what teenagers do.
Going into this project, I wanted to explore why the stories of the Vanderbilt Tomb survived so many generations. I found out that a lot less people know about these legends than I thought.
It got me thinking that the reason I chose this project was misguided. I thought that going to Vanderbilt was a universal experience on Staten Island, and I could find some connective thread across different generations. Instead, I’m realizing I was blinded by nostalgia for all the fun times I’ve had here with friends.
The biggest shock was that these teens found a different reason to care about Vanderbilt. By time we were wrapping up, Brian and Nick were even grilling me about anything disrespectful my friends and I did here.
After bringing a new generation, I didn’t really get an answer to any of my questions. I didn’t even get the response that I expected from them. But doesn’t mean that the project was a failure. I passed this place’s tradition down one more time…and maybe it’ll live on for just a little longer, and the generation after them has a chance to put their own weird little spin on the Vanderbilt Mausoleum.