30 March 2017

Slingerlands Vault

Recently a Bethlehem citizens group, the Bethlehem Alliance for Historic and Community Preservation, was established to preserve the Slingerlands National Historic District. Within that district is the Slingerland Vault. The family burial plot of former US Congressman John I. Slingerland (1804-1861). The hamlet was named after his family. The vault is deteriorating badly and needs restoration. A photo of the vault is below.

But what appears to be more pressing is that it is proposed to put a large apartment building with a drive through bank upon the property of the former Mangia restaurant. This land is adjacent to the small family cemetery.

In January the town proposed a restoration plan for the vault but there are no plans to cordon off the area or prevent development next to the cemetery plot. Another link to raise public awareness about their efforts is here. Hopefully the Town will quickly move forward with plans to restore the vault and to also secure the adjacent land from development. A small park-like area with historical markers and a gazebo would be great in my eyes.

Over the years the Mangia property and the adjacent cemetery have been in the local news. A couple of articles from the Bethlehem Spotlight are cut and pasted below.

The Spotlight, 4 December 1980, pp. 14-15

Town takes control of cemetery
One mystery has been solved. but the modern-day drama surrounding the Slingerlands Family Cemetery remains.

The Bethlehem Town Board. having finally determined that the plot does not belong to somebody else. passed a resolution last week assuming control and responsibility for it. The practical effects are small: town crews will have access to the cemetery and will cut the grass at least three times a year. Supervisor Tom Corrigan said the land will probably also be fenced.

The drama revolves around the question of what happens to the hamlet which John A. Slingerlands founded in the early 1800s. Residents are still waiting to see what will be proposed for the Charles Sanders property. the land around the cemetery and to the east of it, some of it commercially zoned, which changed hands earlier this year.

The new owners, a partnership of Anthony J. Pizzitola of Delmar, his brother Vincent of New York City. and Gina Tomei of Voorheesville, are in the process of renovating the restaurant on the property. but have not said what they plan to do with the rest of the vacant land. Anthony Pizzitola said recently that reports that a supermarket is interested in the commercially zoned property behind the restaurant are incorrect.

While the town board's action will have no direct bearing on the future use of the vacant land. it appears to have some tactical value to Slingerlands residents who want to keep large commercial development out of the hamlet.

"There is something worthwhile to be said for a place which has history, and has the old trees and nice. set-back houses," says Mrs. Patricia Brewer, who is a neighbor of the Sanders property and a leader in the Slingerlands Homeowners Association movement to stop the commercial development.

The cemetery itself. she feels, "has an important value to my home" because the Slingerlands name is such an important part of the hamlet. Not only are the homes of Slingerlands and his children still standing and occupied. but Slingerlands was himself an important figure in the history of the state and the nation.

According to the resolution prepared by Town Historian Thomas E. Mulligan, Jr., Slingerlands was a Whig congressman during the tumultuous years of the "Anti Rent Wars". and originally proposed the Homestead Act which president Lincoln signed in 1861. one month after his death.

The last internment in the burial vault took place in 1910, and the cemetery and vault have since fallen prey to neglect, vandalism and desecration.

The question of who is responsible for the cemetery was raised about four years ago, according to Mrs. Brewer, but did not become vital until the Sanders property changed hands for the final time and a dispute developed over access.
It was only then that the town commissioned a search of the 1910 deed under which William H. Slingerlands, the son of John A., parceled out his father's vast land holdings. The 60 by 85 foot piece of cemetery land, according to a search of the records, was specifically excluded, as was a 16.5-foot right-of-way into the cemetery.

Under town law, the town may assume the right to maintain and preserve the cemetery as an historic place, and that was the action take!). by the board last week.

The Spotlight, 13 April 1994, pp. 1, 32
Judge sides with town in Slingerlands vault
By Mel Hyman

The historic Slingerland family vault, a source of controversy for years, will apparently revert to town ownership after a state Supreme Court ruling that Bethlehem has a perfect legal right to the property.

In 1990, the town brought a lawsuit in Supreme Court seeking title to the 19th century cemetery plot, which is located in a mounded area across from the Toll Gate off New Scotland Road.

Anthony Pizzitola, who owns the property surrounding the burial mound, has claimed dominion over the site since he purchased a large tract of land at the junction of New Scotland Road and Kenwood Avenue in 1981. Pizzitola has allegedly interfered with people seeking to visit the burial vault, which is the reason the town initiated the suit, according to Town Attorney Bernard Kaplowitz.

The court decision, written by Supreme Court Justice Lawrence Kahn, noted that the town's case might have failed because of technical oversights. But on the issue of ownership, Judge Kahn wrote, "the Town of Bethlehem has acquired title to the property in question and may legitimately preclude defendants from maintaining any control over the land. Clearly, the defendants have no legal title to the cemetery plot .. ."

Kahn's decision said three of the four heirs of the late William H. Slingerland ceded ownership over to the town in the 1980s. The fourth surviving heir with rights to the mausoleum was never located.  

But the Pizzitola family's attorney sees it differently, noting that Judge Kahn indicated that a dismissal of the case was warranted, even though he declined to do so.

"It looks like the town lost. Case dismissed," said Albany attorney James - Bruner, who represented Anthony, Fulvia and Vincent Pizzitola in the action. While Kahn made mention of the deeds, he dismissed the injunction sought by the town on other grounds, Bruner said.

"If the town has unlimited resources and wants to go back and initiate another lawsuit," they are free to do so, Bruner said.

Kaplowitz said that while Judge Kahn indicated he could dismiss the town's suit, he opted not to because the town was so clearly in the right. Kaplowitz said that according to Kahn's decision it would be futile for Pizzitola to keep fighting over the plot of land, because even though the town lost on technical grounds, it won on the merits and could easily prevail by refiling the suit.
"Our lines of communication with the· town are open," Bruner said. 'The last thing we want to see is more litigation," which would not be in the best interests of the "town, the Pizzitolas or the residents."

The Pizzitolas are ready to negotiate with the town on issues such as egress and maintenance if the town board is so inclined, Bruner said. Upon his death in 1910, William H. Slingerland left a tract of land for his heirs at the junction of New Scotland Road and Kenwood Avenue. The parcel originally contained the old Slingerlands family home.

Pizzitola purchased the land outright in 1981 from Charlie Sanders. But, as Judge Kahn said, when the Slingerland heirs sold the family tract to Schade in 1920, they excluded the sliver of land containing the family vault. The Slingerland family retained ingress and egress rights to the mausoleum regardless of what happened to the surrounding property.

What happened, according to Kaplowitz, is that Pizzitola sometimes prevented groups of school children from visiting the site because of concerns over liability. Moreover, some of the neighbors along New Scotland Road ·have complained that Pizzitola had cut and removed brush and trees from the property as well as running a bulldozer over part of it.

"Baloney," said Pizzitola last week. 'Those trees were diseased .and were on my property. This is America, isn't it? ... (The plot) was a secret for years. When I took over, suddenly the town decided they wanted it. It was there for over 70 years and nobody did anything until my wife and I and the kids started to take care it."

Pizzitola said he is not opposed to people visiting the site, but he's insistent about having liability insurance because they would be crossing his property to reach the mausoleum.

''Would you let someone on your property without insurance?'' he asked. "No one has stopped anything from happening."

In 1980, the Bethlehem Town Board approved a resolution declaring the site to be of historical significance. A year later, Floyd Brewer took the Bethlehem Archeology Group to the mausoleum on its first dig. Brewer, who was senior editor of "Bethlehem Revisited, A Bicentennial Story 1793-1993," discovered that the vault and its surroundings had been vandalized over the years arid was in serious need of repair. Pieces of a long-lost marble marker were found in the soil and Brewer was able to reassemble it.

As the marker notes, the vault was constructed in 1852 and contained the remains of two of the town's most prominent citizens -John I. and William Henry Slingerland. Outside of the Nicoll-Sill house, "I know of no. other site in town that contains such rich and important information about a family," Brewer said.
The late U.S. Congressman John A Slingerland was probably the "most famous citizen the town has ever. had," Brewer said. His brother William Henry Slingerland, was a renowned engineer and architect who designed the town's first water system. "Now that the town would appear to have control over it, maybe they'll find some funds for restoration," Brewer said. For example, a heavy chain that once linked a series of cement posts that cordoned off the mausoleum area was stolen long ago.

"It would cost maybe $4,000 or $5,000" to make the necessary repairs such as replacing a door that is caving in, replacing the heavy chain that cordoned off a 14 foot outside area and erecting a stand with a glass-enclosed legend that explains the site's historical significance, Brewer said.