A nostalgia for corruption and danger might be the ultimate symbol of 2015’s safe, more mainstream New York. So much so, that in the last ten years the city has been awash in prohibition-themed bars, cocktails and events; all of them trying to capture the lure of the verboten without any of the actual threat of alcohol poisoning, police raid or mob retribution. It’s all Baz Lurhmann’s Great Gatsby, no Lucky Luciano’s Murder, Inc. Strip the idea down to its elements, however, and you might have something like the Secret Mausoleum Club: a members only cocktail party in the ultimate of forbidden places.
Just after sunset on the first nice night of spring, about thirty New Yorkers gather by the stately, timeworn gates of Green-Wood Cemetery and find their way inside. They’re not trespassers, cult followers, or mourners paying their final respects, in fact, they’re there for a good time. They’re key-holding members of Green-Wood’s Secret Mausoleum Club. It may sound like a high school goth’s dream come true—drinks and music in the crypt of the one of the city’s oldest burial grounds—but it’s actually a cagey move by Green-Wood and Atlas Obscura to interest New Yorker’s in historic preservation. Further, by placing the event among the headstones and monuments, these evenings can actually offer the allure of a wildcat party the speakeasy trend seeks to replicate. Part history lecture, part concert, part gallery opening and all cocktail party; these seasonal events open up the final resting places some of the city’s most notable residents to the curious for a rare opportunity to learn, mingle and have a drink or two.
After a brief introduction by Chelsea Dowell (the cemetery’s Manager of Programs and Membership) on the evening’s exhibit, she leads the crowd to the site of the evening’s party. Lit only by the subtle glow of tiki torches, candles, and the occasional streetlight, partiers must carefully pick their way up the rambling walk toward the night’s outdoor locale: the Stephens family’s pyramid-shaped crypt, whose doors have been opened to welcome them. Before entering the mausoleum, visitors are invited to step up to the bar and grab a drink served by two sharply dressed volunteer bartenders, while inside the vault a violinist and cellist saw away, playing an appropriately haunting soundtrack. Tonight’s attractions include a display of antique architectural renderings of some of Green-Wood’s flashier monuments pinned to walls the walls of the tomb. From their vantage point on a hill outside of this final resting place, partiers can take in some breathtaking vistas of the “city that never sleeps” along with their drinks.
Within moments of their entry, the visitors are comfortably chatting, laughing, drinking, and snapping selfies, both inside and outside the Stephens family’s final resting place. The family didn’t seem to mind. The makeup of the crowd is mixed in terms of age; it has both professional and bohemian types, and is made up of regulars and first timers. According to one of the bartenders, Green-Wood docent Colin McDonald, the crowd is anything but grim, “I think there’s a mix of the curious, the social, the drinking and the networking, people are meeting each other here. Maybe with a little bit of mischief or something mixed in.” The choices tonight are beer or wine (albeit, good ones); no artisanal cocktails, which keeps things easy and to the actual basics of drinking and socializing.
Usually busy with daytime tours and community outreach, Ms. Dowell says she always looks forward to these evenings. Especially after a long, brutal winter, “It’s good to be back,” she says. She also particularly loves the intimate feel of the small, dedicated groups of revelers that come month after month “You get to connect with people who are doing this really unique thing in this personal space,” she says, explaining that the attraction has to do with, “the allure of the unexpected to be able do something like this and feel like it’s such a lovely evening in the cemetery.”
And true to form, the drinks are flowing and the crowd is buzzing. Some wander off to explore nearby monuments using their phones as makeshift flashlights, some are just taking in the first warm breezes of the season and some are making new friends. For first timers, a lot of the fun of the experience is discovering the difference between reality and expectation. Newcomer, Sarah Krasly was pleasantly surprised by the experience. “I thought there would be a lot of Harold and Maude-y types around, but it wasn’t like that at all,” she says, adding, “It’s actually quite joyful and not as macabre as I thought it might be.”
More than entertaining, there’s a certain romance to the candlelit event that means for some couples it’s the perfect date night. For Maia Raposo and Brian Dochney, strolling around a cemetery at night is not an unusual choice. “For some reason we do a lot of themed things,” he says, “it adds a little spark to the whole thing.” While there are upsides to the speakeasy trend in the form of a revival of interest in mixology and high-quality spirits, there’s also something to be said for just having an out-of-the-way place to have a drink and chat. For Secret Mausoleum Club, it’s that balance that makes it a great night out; it’s theme without the preciousness of a costume party or pretending to have the secret password.