The Green-Wood Cemetery was established in 1838 as a rural cemetery in the newly created city of Brooklyn. The Steinway family purchased lots in the cemetery in 1864 and in the 1870s built a mausoleum on their site. William’s father, Henry Engelhard Steinway (1797-1871), was the first to be buried in the mausoleum.
Until the 1830s the citizens of New York City tended to be buried in churchyards or in vaults beneath church buildings, and burial grounds tended to be associated with a specific religious denomination. In the 1830s, a few small nondenominational cemeteries were opened in the city. At the same time, there was a gradual change in people’s attitudes toward death. In the Calvinist view of death, it was a grim and dreaded event, leading all but a chosen few to eternal damnation. By the 1830’s death began to be seen in a more pantheistic way as a return to "Mother Earth," as well as a path to salvation and peaceful reunion with deceased loved ones. (1, p. 6)
During this time, New York City underwent a rapid population expansion, resulting in crowded living conditions. There was little room for the expansion of burial space within the city. Moreover, health concerns and the need for land to develop put added pressure on burial space within the city.
Meanwhile, the idea of rural cemeteries on the outskirts of major cities, which began in Europe, was beginning to take hold in America. Rural cemeteries offered the dead a quiet and permanent resting place, and city dwellers a place of quiet repose, far from the busy traffic of city streets, in a setting of spacious parks with romantic landscaping in the form of lawns, trees, shrubs and ponds connected by winding paths. They represented an escape from the travails of city life and a return to nature. (1, p. 4 – 5)
In 1834, the city of Brooklyn created a commission to plan its streets and public parks. One of the men serving on the commission, Henry Pierpont (1808-1888), visited the country’s first rural cemetery, outside of Boston, as well as prominent cemeteries in Europe. Based on his observations of these burial grounds, he developed the idea of creating a large rural cemetery for New York City and suggested that it be located in the Gowanus Hills area of Brooklyn. During the depression of 1837, real estate prices fell substantially, thus creating an opportunity for the city to obtain a large tract of land for the cemetery at a relatively low cost. (1, p. 8)
The Green-Wood Cemetery was incorporated by the New York State legislature in 1838. The legislative act authorized the purchase of 200 acres. Initially it was established as a joint stock company, but was soon converted into a nonprofit corporation, with the trustees elected by lot owners. All of the cemetery’s income was to be devoted to development and maintenance of the grounds. David Bates Douglass (1790-1848) was the cemetery’s landscape architect and first president of the corporation. He and Henry Pierpont selected the land to be purchased. The site chosen offered a magnificent view of New York’s harbor. The landscaping that Douglass planned was meant to improve upon nature and create romantic settings that were deemed more "natural." (1. p. 9-10) Even the names "Green-Wood" and "cemetery"(sleeping place, rather than place for the dead) were chosen to give the feeling of nature, relaxation and contemplation. (1.p.7)
The first burials at Green-Wood were in 1840. (1, p. 11) Green-Wood was not an immediate success, but survived because it appealed to the pride of Brooklynites and New Yorkers. The cemetery also successfully marketed plots to churches and fraternal organizations that bought large plots to sell to their members. (1, p. 12) In 1846, the New York State legislature authorized the cemetery to purchase an additional 125 acres. (1, p. 13) By the mid-19th century, Green-Wood was considered to be the most beautiful cemetery in America. On the basis of its reputation, lots were bought by people living in all parts the country. (1, p. 15)
The cemetery’s trustees imposed rules on lot owners to guarantee the quality and structural soundness of monuments, and particularly to avoid "uninteresting" monuments. (1, p.16) Noted architects and sculptors were hired to design monuments, which sometimes became ostentatious displays of social status. In the time before New York’s Central Park opened, the cemetery became immensely popular as a public park and a fashionable place for family outings. Visitors at Green-Wood could pay for a carriage tour of the cemetery, with the graves of famous people pointed out. Greenwood presently covers 478 acres. The Gothic Revival entrance gates were designed by the firm of Richard Upjohn & Son and built during the Civil War. (1, p. 20)
The partners of Steinway & Sons purchased eight lots in Green-Wood Cemetery for $18,000 in 1864.(2, p.1) To create the granite mausoleum that was erected on the site in 1870, the family hired architect Henry Reck. The cost of construction was $47,292. The architect’s fee was about 5 percent of this cost, amounting to $2,444. (2, p. 1) William’s diary mentions Reck inspecting the mausoleum construction in 1871. (Diary 1871-01-21) In 1877 the family hired John Moffitt to make some renovations at the mausoleum for a cost of $340. (Diary 1877-06-13) Jeffrey Richman, in his book on the Green-Wood Cemetery, mistakenly named John Moffitt as the designer of the mausoleum. He also incorrectly gave the cost as $80,000. (1. p. 103)