Our Buildings: The Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument

The Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument stands tall in the middle of Fort Greene Park. (Illustration by Daniel Lewis)
The Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument stands tall in the middle of Fort Greene Park. (Illustration by Daniel Lewis)

What makes a neighborhood? People, pets and the stories that make up our days. But we also have our buildings, the places where we work, play, eat, sleep, learn and live. Throughout Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, you will find everything from colonial brownstones to housing projects to luxury apartments: buildings that have been here since the earliest days of this country. Have a building you think we should highlight? Let us know in the comments or email us at TheNabe@TheNabe.me.

Few structures are as iconic to Fort Greene as the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Fort Greene Park. Standing at the top of the hill where Major General Nathaniel Greene established Fort Putnam in 1776, the obelisk reaches up through the trees like a lighthouse on the shore. But the monument is more than just a memorial – it’s a crypt.

During the Revolutionary War, the British kept prisoners from all thirteen colonies locked up in prison ships moored in New York Harbor. Over the course of the war, 11,500 captive men and women died in these ships, as well as jails built along the shoreline. Their bodies were unceremoniously thrown overboard into the bay or buried on the shore. After the war, the bodies were interred in a tomb near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Over the next century, Fort Putnam was renamed to Fort Greene and a park was eyed for the hilltop Major General Greene stood atop. In 1867, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux were contracted to landscape Fort Greene Park and design a new memorial for the prison ship martyrs.

The original crypt was a simple brick vault, according to the New York City Parks Department. The grand staircase leading to the tomb was added in 1905, but the column was not built until 1908. The column was designed by the architect Stanford White and the bronze lantern was sculpted by Adolph Alexander Weinman.

The story of the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument goes to show that the neighborhood is a work in progress. Even though it looks as if it’s been there forever, it took more than one hundred years for the memorial to become what we see today.

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