In 1847, the New York State legislature passed the Rural Cemetery Act and in 1852 the Common Council of the City of New York (then consisting of Manhattan only) banned the future use of any new ground for burial purposes. These two governmental actions brought great change to the sleepy little town of Middle Village. Within a decade, the village was transformed from dairy and market farms to being a runner-up to Maspeth as the interment capital of New York State. Middle Village gained hold to Lutheran and St. John Cemeteries while Maspeth and its surrounds were home to Mount Olivet, Mount Zion and Calvary Cemeteries. Prior to passage of the act, many of Newtown’s departed were buried in family plots inside church yards, public grounds and, of course, on family farms. Afterward, most burials occurred in commercial cemeteries.
The insatiable need to find final resting places for a growing New York metropolis transformed the arteries of Middle Village from rural to suburban in the blink of an eye. As this journal has recorded, the Willamsburgh & Jamaica Turnpike (Metropolitan Avenue), Juniper Avenue (69th Street), Dry Harbor Road (80th Street) and Trotting Course Lane (Woodhaven Boulevard) all became busy thoroughfares and the land alongside them was divided into lots and developed into a mélange of structures. The cemeteries became the economic engine of Middle Village and it attracted ancillary businesses which took up residence in these buildings serving the cemetery trade. Dotting the streets were hotels, saloons, restaurants, dry goods shops, stonecutters, livery stables and, of course, florists.
As the cemetery trade expanded, the land along these byways grew in value and florists needing space for shops, cold frames, sheds and greenhouses looked to secondary roads. One of the most important of these was Mount Olivet Avenue, today’s Mount Olivet Crescent. Mount Olivet, as it does today, emanated at Metropolitan Avenue and climbed along Lutheran Cemetery’s western border to the top of what is now Eliot Avenue, then continued down across Fresh Pond Road into part of Maspeth. Due to 20th century naming dictates by New York City, Mount Olivet Crescent now ends in name two blocks east of Fresh Pond Road at 64th Street and becomes 59th Drive.
At Lutheran Cemetery’s founding and for years later it was fenceless along Mount Olivet Avenue, but, as the area became urbanized, a wooden fence was built there with at least two formal entrances; one being Way (Wayland) Avenue, which was a public street, and another several hundred feet farther north which made it easier for visitors to gain entry to the burial grounds. In the early 20th century, Way Avenue was confiscated by Lutheran Cemetery and a permanent gate with iron and stone fencing was installed limiting access via Mount Olivet Avenue and causing great consternation to the florists and the local population.
As most Middle Village residents know, Mount Olivet runs along a hill which at its peak is one of the highest points in all of Queens County. Being on the descending part of the hill the land on the west side of Mount Olivet was not prime real estate and had a rather reduced value compared to Metropolitan Avenue. Due to this and the two entrances to Lutheran Cemetery, many of the florists decided to locate their business along the avenue. In a short time structures necessary for a continued profitable floral enterprise appeared along Mount Olivet. Shops were attached to homes while the aforementioned sheds, cold frames and eventually greenhouses appeared in quantity with the obligatory saloons, hotels and stonecutters interspersed among them.
The florist business was much similar to farming except their crops were flowers and plants. They also sold seasonal items such as Easter plants and Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and patriotically themed decorations for national holidays. Christmas was a very busy and hectic time for the florists during which time they made and sold wreaths and blankets made from fir boughs for door and grave adornments. Hothouse grown poinsettias were also in demand for indoor ornamentation.
In addition to the seasonal business the florists maintained grave plots for those who were unable to perform those duties by themselves. They’d mow the grass, weed, and plant flowers and ground cover such as ivy and pachysandra.
The life of a florist was demanding and unforgiving. Their business was at the mercy of Mother Nature who could wreak havoc on a season’s planting with a cold snap, torrential rain or drought. It was also a business that demanded a seven day work week with sunrise to sunset hours and a family venture employing the labor of wives and children. Wives and daughters helped in the shop; they arranged flowers, prepared bouquets and tied bows while sons were generally relegated to the more physical exercises such as overturning the dirt, planting, hoeing, caring of the horses, repairing the glass, stoking the boilers and overall maintenance of the complex.
One problem on Mount Olivet was the muddy hill and erosion from storms. However that was soon solved when the town paved Mount Olivet with Belgian blocks commonly known as cobblestones. It also made life much easier for the florists, their families and their customers.
Some of the names of the hard working proprietors might be familiar to some longtime residents of Middle Village. Names like Lowenhaupt, Wunderlin, Russol, Leopold, Fischer, Krapf, Brant, Marquardt, Kalish and Morgo. All these families successfully plied their trade on Mount Olivet between the late 1800s until the 2000s. They conscientiously served those who travelled to pay respects to deceased families and friends and they decorated the graves for those who couldn’t make the trip.
In recent decades, visiting cemeteries and placing flowers at the burial sites has fallen out of favor. Years ago, visitation of the graves was an honored ritual. This was before photographs were aplenty and cameras/movies/videos were yet to be invented, or available to all classes, through which one could remember deceased loved ones. Business has fallen off at florists due to the changing societal mores, the advent of artificial flowers and revision of cemetery decoration rules.
One by one, the florist shops of Mount Olivet Crescent have disappeared and several years ago, Lutheran (now All Faiths) Cemetery closed the Mount Olivet gate entrance, leaving Metropolitan Avenue as the lone entrance. The last surviving shop on the Crescent was operated by Ted and Marge Morgo. The Morgos closed their shop several years ago although they still maintain and care for cemetery plots for many of their clients.
Mount Olivet Crescent is not the only street without a floral shop. A recent trip around the perimeter of All Faiths Cemetery showed that there are no florists remaining on Metropolitan Avenue, 69th Street or Eliot Avenue. A once vibrant business has totally vanished and probably will never return.