Grant's Tomb in New York City
General Grant National Memorial (as designated by the U.S. National Park Service), better known as Grant's Tomb, is a mausoleum containing the bodies of Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), American Civil War General and 18th President of the United States, and his wife, Julia Dent Grant (1826–1902). The tomb complex is a presidential memorial in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City. The structure is situated in a prominent location in Riverside Park overlooking the Hudson River.
Creation of the Grant Monument Association
On July 23, 1885 President Ulysses S. Grant died of cancer. The family of General Grant agreed to have the remains placed in New York City. The following day, Mayor Grace of New York City wrote a letter to prominent New Yorkers to gather support for a National Monument in Grant’s honor. The letter read as follows,
“Dear Sir: In order that the City of New York, which is to be the last resting place of General Grant, should initiate a movement to provide for the erection of a National Monument to the memory of the great soldier, and that she should do well and thoroughly her part, I respectfully request you to as one of a Committee to consider ways and means for raising the quota to be subscribed by the citizens of New York City for this object, and beg that you will attend a meeting to be held at the Mayor’s office on Tuesday next, 28 inst., at three o’clock…”
85 New Yorkers attended this preliminary meeting and established the Committee on Organization. The chairman of the Committee was Ex-President Chester A. Arthur and the secretary was Richard T. Greener. This organization would come to be known as the Grant Monument Association (GMA).
The Grant Monument Association did not originally announce the function or structure of the monument; however, the idea of any monument in Grant’s honor drew public support. The company Western Union donated $5,000 on the 29th of June, the day that the committee announced its proposal. The GMA continued to receive donations of large and small amounts. At a membership meeting, former New York State Governor Alonzo Cornell proposed a fundraising goal of $1 million. (Kahn page 31) Private industries such as the insurance companies and iron trading companies donated funds to the project. For every ton of coal The Consumers Coal Company sold, they gave a major donation of 37½ cents to the GMA.
Although there was great excitement for a monument to President Grant, early fundraising efforts were stifled by growing negative public opinion expressed by out of state press. The Clay County Enterprise in Brazil, Indiana wrote, “We have not a cent for New York in the undertaking, and would advise that not a dollar of help be sent to the millionaire city from Indiana…If the billions of New York are not sufficient to embellish the city…let the remains be placed in Washington or some other American city.” (September 11)
The opposition was highly attributed to the belief that the monument should be in Washington D.C. Mayor Grace tried to calm the controversy by publicly releasing Mrs. Grants’ justification for the New York site as the resting place for her husband, in her own words. Mrs. Grant wrote:
“Riverside was selected by myself and my family as the burial place of my husband, General Grant. First, because I believed New York was his preference. Second, it is near the residence that I hope to occupy as long as I live, and where I will be able to visit his resting place often. Third, I have believed, and am now convinced, that the tomb will be visited by as many of his countrymen there as it would be at any other place. Fourth, the offer of a park in New York was the first which observed and unreservedly assented to the only condition imposed by General Grant himself, namely, that I should have a place by his side.”
Criticism was not limited to the debate on the location of the monument. According to the New York Times, there was discontent with the internal management of the GMA. The criticism was that even though the members of the GMA were of the wealthiest in New York, they were making very comparatively small donations to the effort that they themselves were promoting. The New York Times characterized the members as, “sitting quietly in an office and signing receipts for money voluntarily tendered.” In this early stage, the GMA did not have a model for what the monument was to be; They continued to ask for donations for the project without explaining what the money would be used for, which frustrated and discouraged donors. Joan Waugh captures the feelings of an average citizen in her book, American Hero American Myth, by saying, “Why should citizens give money to build a monument whose shape was still a mystery.” The GMA did not propose a concrete plan for the monument until five years later.
Fiscally, the first few years of the GMA achieved below the expectations set by Alonzo Cornell in the first days of the organization. In the first year, 1885, the GMA raised just over $111,000, 10% of their goal. In the two years that followed they raised 10,000, 10% of their donations in 1885. This slow pace of fundraising in and of itself detracted donations and trustees began to resign. By this time there still was no design of what the structure would be and until that process began, fundraising efforts remained low.
On February 4, 1888 after a year’s worth of delay, the GMA publicly announced the details of a design competition, in a newsletter entitled “To Artists, Architects, and Sculptors”. This information was made public to the entire nation, and was also published in Europe. The GMA also proposed a new figure for the cost of the monument from $1,000,000 to $500,000. The deadline for all designs was rescheduled three times and was then set for a final date of January 10, 1889. The winner of the contest was an architect named John Hemenway Duncan. Duncan was one of sixty-five contestants. John Duncan made his first architectural claims in 1883, designing the “Washington Monument at Newburgh”, “The Newburgh Monument”, and the “Tower of Victory.” Duncan built these structures as a celebration of the one hundred year anniversary of the revolutionary war. He became a member of the Architectural League in 1887. Duncan cited the objective of his design was, “to produce a monumental structure that should be unmistakably a tomb of military character.” And he wanted to avoid “resemblance of a habitable dwelling.” The structure was meant to be the epitome of reverence and respect. He estimated his design would cost between $496,000 and $900,000. The tomb's granite exterior is modeled after the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and but for the Ionic order, resembles the Tropaeum Alpium. While within the tomb the twin sarcophagi of Grant and his wife Julia are based on that of Napoleon Bonaparte at Les Invalides.
By 1890, the GMA had a defined design and architect. Although the GMA was becoming more organized and the reality of the monument was becoming clearer, the debate over the location of the monument reopened in Congress. In October 1890 U.S. Senator Hale introduced legislation to have the sarcophagi placed at a monument in Washington D.C. The legislation did not pass but reopened the debate on the proper place for the remains of General Grant. A groundbreaking ceremony had already been scheduled for April 27, 1891 and although the parties had not agreed on a location for the monument by that date, a groundbreaking ceremony was still held. In June 1891 deliberations ended; the monument was to be built in New York City, and in that month the GMA hired a contractor named John T. Brady. Construction began that summer and by August preliminary excavation was complete. Construction was on schedule until in the spring of 1892 the GMA asked Duncan to alter his design; the design could not be as elaborate as originally planned due to the Association's inability to raise the sufficient funds. Construction was also slowed down due to a stonecutters’ strike in 1892. After 1894 construction proceeded at a faster pace and by 1896 all work on the outside of the tomb was close to complete. The monument was completed in time for the 75th anniversary ceremony of Grant’s birth on April 27, 1897.
A Poem Written in General Grant's Honor
Walt Whitman (1819–1892) wrote::
- "As one by one withdraw the lofty actors
- From that great play on history's stage eterne
- That lurid, partial act of War and peace—of old and new contending,
- Fought out through wrath, fears, dark dismays, and many a long suspense;
- All past—and since, in countless graves receding, mellowing,
- Victors and vanquish'd—Lincoln's and Lee's—now thou with them,
- Man of the mighty days—and equal to the days!
- Thou from the prairies!—tangled and many-vein'd and hard has been thy part,
- To admiration has it been enacted!"
Decay and restoration
The initial restoration project began in December 1935, where the W.P.A.'s laborers laid down new marble flooring in the crypt. The W.P.A. played a large role in sustaining the monument. Joan Waugh explains that, "In the 1930s the tomb was kept afloat, barely, by funds from the Works Progress Administration." Shortly after the restoration project began the old New York City Post Office was being demolished and donated two statues of eagles to decorate the front of the Grant Monument. The laborers of the W.P.A. worked on several projects throughout the 1930s, including roof restoration, the electric lighting and heating systems, and taking out the purple stained glass windows. The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company installed amber glass to replace the purple stained glass. Toward the end of the 1930s a project began to restore the two reliquary rooms where encasings with flags where added as well as murals of the wars Grant had fought in were painted on the walls. In 1938 the Federal Art Project selected artists William Mues and Jeno Juszko to design the busts of William T. Sherman, Phillip H. Sheridan, George H. Thomas, James B. MacPherson, and Edward Ord. The W.P.A. installed the five busts in the crypt around the sacrophogi. After the many contributions of the W.P.A. the Grant Monument Association held a rededication of the tomb on April 27, 1939.
In 1958 the National Park Service (NPS) took authority in the overseeing of the monument. According to a report by the NPS itself, a historian admitted that when the service was granted authority over the tomb they "had no program for the site." This led to great negligence of the site, particularly in the maintenance of the monument. By the 1970s the Tomb was characterized by vandalism and graffiti. The NPS undertook a plan to tear down the trophy cases in the reliquary rooms. The abuse of the monument continued until renewed restoration efforts began in the early 1990s.
In 1994 Frank Scaturro pushed an effort to restore the tomb and brought his concerns to Congress. A New York Times article articulated Mr. Scaturro's concerns saying, " 'improvements' have detracted from the tomb's solemnity."<ref name="grantstomb.org"/> There was not only grafitti, but at the time there were only three maintenance workers and three rangers on daytime duty with a yearly budget of $235,000. The tomb was in great need of reform. The monument's poor state of being caught the attention of two Illinois state lawmakers. State Sen. Judy Baar Topinka and State Rep. Ron Lawfer sponsored a resolution to force the National Park Service to meet their obligations in maintaining and restoring Grant's tomb. If the NPS did not comply then Topinka and Lawfer were to demand that the tomb be placed in the state of Illinois. Senator Topinka said, "He would be better off anywhere than New York, but my argument is not with New York; it's the National Park Service." The demands for restoration did not stop at the state level. In 1994 the United States House of Representatives introduced legislation to, "restore, complete, and preserve in perpetutiy the Grant's Tomb National Memorial and surrounding areas." The legislation set by the U.S. House of Representatives required that the restoration be completed by April 27, 1997 On April 27, 1997 the restoration effort sanctioned by Congress was completed and the tomb rededicated.
Public art project
A sculpture consisting of 17 concrete benches bearing colorful mosaics was created around the monument. The sculpture, entitled The Rolling Bench, was designed by artist Pedro Silva and the architect Phillip Danzig, and was built with the help of hundreds of neighborhood children over a period of three years. The project was sponsored by CITYarts, a non-profit organization founded in 1968 to create works of public art by bringing together children and artists. The sculpture underwent restoration during the summer of 2008 under the supervision of Silva.
- United States Presidential Memorials
- The National Parks: Index 2001–2003. Washington: U.S. Department of the Interior.
- Official NPS website: General Grant National Memorial
- Grant Monument Association
- Find A Grave Entry
- Grant's funeral and the mausoleum
- Description of The Rolling Bench
- CITYarts project to restore The Rolling Bench
- Pictorial Travel Log Visiting the Benches at the Tomb