Cate Ludlam came home from work one night to a voicemail on her answering machine that would change her life.
The message was about the Prospect Cemetery Association, an organization formed in 1879 to care for the four-acre cemetery in Jamaica, Queens. Officials there were looking for descendants of the Ludlam family who might want to volunteer to help care for the plots.
Ludlam knew that her ancestors came to America from England during the colonial period, settled along the East Coast and were buried in cemeteries in New York City and the surrounding area. She decided to get involved.
Soon after volunteering in 1989, Ludlam, a computer-systems analyst, was elected president of the association and went on to oversee the revival of the cemetery and its historic Chapel of the Sisters. In 2008, the chapel reopened as a performance space — a new home to the York College Jazz Ensemble.
Ludlam learned that many of her ancestors were buried in Prospect Cemetery, but when she visited it for the first time to find their gravestones she was brought to tears over the condition of the place.
Poison ivy and other plants that had grow without check for years made it impossible to access parts of the cemetery. Many tombstones were broken and the chapel was damaged everywhere. Vandals used its stained-glass windows for target practice, says Ludlam. On that first visit, she made it her mission to rescue the property. What she didn’t know was that it would take 20 years to do it.
“I was glad to find [my ancestors’] names on the list of people buried at the cemetery, but I was terribly upset about the condition of the cemetery and the chapel,” says Ludlam. “The chapel was nearly destroyed, there were holes in the roof. It was full of pigeons and rats. It was one of the most upsetting experiences of my life, to see that the cemetery was nearly abandoned; it had not been cared for. . . . I was terribly upset and very motivated to clean it up.”
Located at 159th Street and Beaver Road, Prospect Cemetery is the oldest in Queens, established in 1668 as the early graveyard of the small town of Jamaica.
Historic figures like Captain J.J. Skidmore, who formed a band of local soldiers and fought the British in the Battle of Long Island, is buried there along with at least 53 of his Skidmore Minutemen. Egbert Benson is also there. A lawyer from Red Hook, Brooklyn, he served as U.S. Representative from Dutchess County and Westchester counties to the First and Second American Congress and in 1794 was appointed to the newly established position as the fifth Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York. Abraham Lincoln’s favorite actor, James Henry Hackett, was also laid to rest at the cemetery, as well as members of several prominent colonial families like Van Wycklan, Bergen and Nostrand and Sutphin.
In 1856, Nicholas Ludlum(a variation in the spelling of the family name), Cate Ludlam’s ancestor and a wealthy hardware merchant whose family had lived in Jamaica for many years, purchased three acres of land from the Long Island Railroad Company to expand the cemetery. The following year, he built a small chapel to commemorate his three daughters, all of whom had died young, Ludlam says. Named the Chapel of the Sisters, the 19th-century Romanesque Revival structure was intended for family funerals. It was built with ashlar fieldstone and a decorative light brown-colored sandstone trim. It features a gable roof and large stained-glass windows, which were recreated by the Gil Studio in Brooklyn as part of the renovation.
In 1879, the association took over the property, but both the cemetery and the chapel fell into disrepair as the number of the descendants who lived in the area and volunteered to maintain the cemetery dwindled over the years.
When Ludlam first saw the damage, she immediately resolved to do something about it. For 10 years, she relied on volunteers and her mom, Mary Ludlam, to help her clear the grounds, while she continued to knock on doors looking for help in the local community.
“My mother loved going out there,” says Ludlum. “She pulled the weeds, she was a gardener so she enjoyed it. I had volunteers helping me, kids who never held a pair of pruning shears in their lives. But I was not about to give up no matter what happened.”
Finally, in 1999 the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC) and the New York Landmarks Conservancy got interested in Ludlam’s project and partnered to restore the chapel and clean up the grounds. It took several more years to get the funds for it, most of which came from the office of Borough President Helen Marshall and a grant obtained by the GJDC. A title search performed before the work began on the chapel revealed that since 1953 the property belonged to the city of New York, which meant that public money could be spent on the project and that the city should be the one maintaining the land.
“The property is of historic significance to Jamaica. The city didn’t maintain and invest in it, and we found some people who cared about it so we thought it was a good idea to restore it,” says Carlisle Towery, president of the GJDC.
The restoration became part of a larger project in downtown Jamaica. GDJC transformed 159th Street in front of the chapel into a pedestrian walkway, which connects the Long Island Railroad Station with South Jamaica, York College, the Federal Drug Administration Building — on York’s campus — and the cemetery, which sits adjacent to the college. During the restoration the chapel’s facade was exposed to the walkway so people could access the chapel without entering the cemetery, located behind an iron fence. Now thousands of York College students pass by it every day.
“It gives it the flexibility to have events in the chapel without putting historic stones in danger,” says Ludlam. “The idea was to make it part of the York College community.
In 2008 the chapel reopened as the Illinois Jacquet Performance Space, named after a famed jazz saxophonist who lived in southeast Queens and performed with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, and who led the Illinois Jacquet Band from 1981 until his death in 2004.
“It’s a wonderful space,” says Thomas Zlabinger, York College music professor who leads the York College jazz ensemble. “One of the best listening environments you can dream of. No echo. All the sound is absorbed by the red long curtains hanging all around the space, so you can hear everything perfectly.”
Since reopening, the chapel has hosted dozens of student recitals, big band performances, and every June 21 it has been part of Make Music New York, a festival of free concerts in public spaces throughout the five boroughs.
“Students love the space because there’s nothing like it on campus,” says Zlabinger, who works closely with Ludlam to organize the concerts. “The chapel is the only structure on campus that was built in the 19th century, and it was restored in such a away that it makes you slow down. I believe music is a social activity and that we need venues or resources like the chapel for musicians to convene and for students to hear music and make music.”
Ludlam isn’t finished yet. She’s overseeing a survey of the 3,000 headstones in the cemetery and creating a database so she can apply for grants that would restore or replace damaged tombstones.
“When I bring people on tours I try to stress that where you’re standing is not just the history of Jamaica but of the U.S and that the U.S. was built by immigrants,” says Ludlam. “I want people to understand the significance of this piece of property, to understand the significance and value of history and that the freedom and privilege that we enjoy in America was paid for by the people who are buried at the cemetery.”