When Jan Jansen Bleecker arrived in New Netherland in 1658, he couldn’t have imagined the thoroughfare that would carry his name into the 21st century, Bleecker Street, nor the generations of American Bleeckers that came after.
Bleecker Street runs east-west from the Bowery to 6th Avenue then curves sharply north until it dead-ends into Hudson Street in the West Village. The history of Bleecker Street traces the history of Manhattan: open farmland to middle class suburb to crowded turn-of-the-century tenements to Bohemian mecca to down-and-out flophouses to boutique shopping. Bleecker Street is sung about by musicians from Simon and Garfunkel to Bruce Springsteen. Bleecker Street, it seems, means something in American culture—something different to everyone. Bleecker Street song lyrics can be found here.
But let’s go back to Jan Jansen Bleecker, stepping onto the shores of the New World in 1658. He settled in Albany, where he served as mayor and had several children, including a son name Rutger. Rutger’s son Jacobus married Abigail Lispenard, the daughter of a prominent Huguenot family, and settled in Manhattan. Jacobus was an auctioneer, primarily of real estate. His eldest son, Anthony Lispenard Bleecker, followed his father’s footsteps and became a prominent merchant and auctioneer. Anthony Lispenard Bleecker or his sons owned the land through which Bleecker Street now runs. That land may have been part of the old Lispenard estate, and Anthony, Leonard, Thomas, Barclay and Lispenard Streets are all named for Lispenard family members.
Both the Bleecker and Lispenard families attended Trinity Church, and church records show dozens of baptisms, marriages (often to other prominent colonial families) and funerals. Anthony Lispenard Bleecker was a vestryman and warden, and his son and grandson were also vestrymen. No wonder, then, that these men and other family members were laid to rest in Trinity churchyard, many in the Anthony L. Bleecker Family Vault, purchased in 1790.Nearly 30 members of the Bleecker family were buried in the churchyard, primarily during the 19th century. Lispenards are buried in the Barclay Family Vault, and another branch of the family is buried in the Robinson Family Vault.
The Bleecker family has consistently taken an interest in their ancestral resting place. During the construction of the current Trinity Church in December 1839, Anthony W. Bleecker wrote a forceful letter to the Trinity vestry concerning the treatment of a vault.
In pulling down the church …the vault has been most wantonly trespassed upon—the Coffins destroyed, the Silver Plates taken away + the bones of my Relations put in a Rough Box and left exposed at the end of the Yard.Be pleased to let me know what Indemnification I am to expect for this trespass.
Vestry minutes reveal that Mr. Bleecker’s complaint was received and referred to “the building Committee with Instructions to make Inquiry into the facts and to confer with Mr Bleecker.”
The last of the nineteenth century Bleeckers was buried in the churchyard 1884. As the city became more crowded, restrictions were enacted that prohibit traditional burials in Lower Manhattan, but allow for interment of the ashes of the direct descendents of a vault’s owners.In January 1971, Helen Murray Macdonald’s ashes were interred in the vault; church records shed little light on her relationship to Anthony L. Bleecker.
In 1966 an addition to the church was constructed over the Bleecker vault, and the vault stone was moved to a thin strip of churchyard just west of the building. It was there when Richard W. Bleecker, great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Jan Jansen Bleecker, noticed it in 1981. He began corresponding with the archivist and building manager at the time, and maintained sporadic communication throughout the next twenty years. In 2001, he wrote this account of visiting the Bleecker Vault:
The church no longer has much contact with descendants of the original vault owners.Evidently, mine was the only inquiry received in the last twenty years. Church officials and I examined old records…It appeared that the [Bleecker] vault was still intact beneath the building.Expressing interest in having my remains placed in the Vault, I asked to visit it to see if there was enough space.
The church officials were not at all confident that the Vault could be accessed; evidently no one had tried to get to that particular area since the building’s expansion. (Editor’s note: Officials at the time must have been unaware that Ms. Macdonald’s ashes had been interred in the vault in 1971.) I persisted with my request, and eventually a workman was dispatched to the area.He reported that it was possible to reach the hallway leading to the Vault, but that trip would be difficult and the conditions primitive.I was not discouraged, and asked that we press on.
On the chilly morning of November 22, 2000, accompanied by five workers from the church, I began the trek that would hopefully lead to the ancestral burial place.First, we descended a flight of stairs and entered a large boiler room.Against the far wall a ladder was placed.A climb to the top revealed a narrow crawl space that lead into darkness. Portable lights affixed to long extension cords were brought up so we could find our way.After carefully crawling over and around dusty pipes and ducts for about twenty-five feet, we came to a heavy concrete slab.Several of the men moved the slab to one side, exposing a black opening.This was as far as the previous workman had ventured.We dropped a second ladder into the opening and descended into the immediate area where the Vault was believed to be located.
We found ourselves in a hallway.There were three doors on either side.Each door was the entrance to a family vault.The Bleecker Vault was the third one on the right.
The air was perfectly still.For a few second, it seemed as though my heart, my breath and time itself were suspended.As soon as the lighting was brought down to us, I entered the Vault.The space was perhaps twelve feet by twelve feet, with a curved ceiling.This was a sacred place.
On the floor were the remains of my ancestors.Simple wooden coffins were stacked in piles.With the passage of time the coffins had come apart.The coffins on the bottom had largely disintegrated due to the weight of those above them.Ancestral dust and skeletal remains commingled with wood from the coffins.I bent down to read some of the inscriptions on the small metal markers that were attached to the coffins.They gave the names and dates of those who had been placed there…Cornelia Bleecker…Mary Bleecker…
I imagined the blessings that had been said, the memories invoked, during the nineteenth century burial rituals that had taken place there.I remained in the Vault for awhile, seeking spiritual communion and kinship.
Before climbing back to the crawlspace, I looked into the other five vaults.They were the same size as the Bleecker Vault.Several were almost empty, however, and none had been used for as many burials.
Shortly after that visit, accompanied by the wife, Juanita, I attended a Sunday service in the Trinity Church.Seated in the pew, an aura of grace surrounded us.It was unlike anything I had felt before.After the service, we wandered through the building, knowing that somewhere beneath our feet lay the Vault.On one side of the main worship hall, we came upon a small, intimate chapel. It was a perfect place to kneel and pray that the souls of my ancestors would forever rest in peace.