Odd headstone in Queens park has colorful past

The tombstone of Leon Nascimbene (inset) was discovered in Elmhurst Park soon after it opened. Photo by Christina Santucci/inset courtesy Paul Nascimbene and Robert Holden.
By Joe Anuta

A headstone discovered in the newly constructed Elmhurst Park has spawned an interest in legends from both the Maspeth community and the family of the deceased.

The eroded marker, which bears the name Leon Nascimbene, was installed by city Parks Department workers who believed a body was buried on the site of the park, according to community activist Christina Wilkinson.

“It was put there in the construction of the park,” Wilkinson said. “I spoke to the people who worked there, and they said it was a grave.”

The workers, believing someone was buried on the site, said they did not want to disturb the deceased, according to Wilkinson.

Nobody knows how the headstone got to the site, which used to house the Elmhurst Gas Tanks until the 1990s.

Nascimbene is buried in nearby Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens — not in the park.

But his story spans two centuries and an ocean.

Nascimbene emigrated from northern Italy in the early 1900s, according to his son Leon Nascimbene Jr., an 88-year-old doctor who lives in Indiana. The family first settled in Manhattan, then in Jackson Heights and eventually in Forest Hills.

Nascimbene was a restaurateur who spoke several languages and managed a series of upscale eateries in the city before becoming the maitre d’ at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

He was originally buried in a Westchester cemetery in 1962, near where he spent his last days in a nursing home, according to his son.

But six years later, Nascimbene’s wife had the body transferred to the Kew Gardens cemetery so Nascimbene could be closer to home, his son said.

“Apparently, the headstone came with him,” he said.

But Nascimbene was buried in a section of Maple Grove Cemetery that did not allow stone headstones for aesthetic reasons, according to Bonnie Dixon, executive director of the cemetery. Dixon has a theory that the headstone could have been put into storage and become mixed with boulders and rocks that were dug up and sold to construction companies as filler material.

But a spokeswoman for National Grid said the project used dirt as filler material, not rock and stone.

The Parks Department removed the headstone last week, according to officials, who said the property was never used as a gravesite and that the headstone was found when the city took over the property in 2005. The department is currently storing the headstone and waiting for members of the family to decide what to do.

Paul Nascimbene, Nascimbene’s grandson who does research for the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, is not sure what should be done with the headstone if Maple Grove does not want to take it.

“If they don’t allow it, then the park might be interested in keeping it because it’s an interesting story,” he said. “That’s still to be determined.”

But if the city keeps the stone, Wilkinson said it has some explaining to do.

“I think if [the headstone] stays in the park, they should put something there that explains it,” Wilkinson said. “There will be all these urban legends.”

As an example, she cited an earlier — and slightly more ridiculous — urban legend that a man used to row around in the Elmhurst Gas Tanks at night.

And now workers have already been telling residents a mysterious body was buried beneath the park.

But the emergence of the headstone has Nascimbene’s grandson searching through the legends of his own family.

He traced the Nascimbene name back to northern Italy and found a long cast of interesting characters, like a famous heretic, a pirate and a man who murdered his way up the social ladder and became a gentleman of Verona.

“They are just stories and are way removed,” he said. “But it’s interesting.”

As for the impetus for his research, he said he was glad the stone had been discovered.

“It’s nice to see details of his life come to light that might have otherwise faded away. My boss recently said, ‘Your grandfather seems to have led an interesting life — even posthumously.’”

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 917-600-6286.

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