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General Grant National Memorial, New York


General Grant National Memorial, New York

If you've never seen that name before, it's because everyone, from the beginning, has called it Grant's Tomb, the name that it goes by in probably one of the oldest jokes you ever heard. Of which, more below. 

And while everyone knows the name, these days Grant's Tomb gets few visitors to its site in New York City's Riverside Park, overlooking the Hudson and flanked by the massive Riverside Church.

George G recognized our One-Clue Mystery from this photo of one of the site's two guardian eagles.

The National Park Service, which has been in charge since 1958, counts about 80,000 visitors a year, or a bit over 200 a day. The two young rangers who were staffing the visitor desk during my visit told me that there are hours and even days when scarcely a soul wanders in; when the weather is good they sometimes stand outside and try to pull visitors in. It must be one of the loneliest jobs in the Park Service despite the urban setting.

Grants_Tomb_cornerstone_Harrison800px-18970515_Trevor_Grant_004crIt wasn't always that way, as you can see from the crowds around when President Harrison laid the ceremonial cornerstone in 1892, and when it was formally inaugurated in 1897.


The building and fundraising for the tomb had some bumps and bruises along the way. When Grant died in 1885, New York Mayor William Grace, jumped in and offered New York to Grant's widow, Julia, and started a bandwagon rolling. She accepted, since she was planning to live in New York, and other proposals for military cemeteries and Washington, DC didn't meet what she said was his only condition: that their be space for her, as well. She died in 1902.


After an initial flurry of interest and fundraising, things slowed down, in part because there was no plan to show donors, and in part because number of the rich sponsors were waiting for others to put up more. For twelve years, Grant rested in a temporary tomb at the site, with the puzzling inscription "In His Simplicity, Sublime." The permanent tomb is topped with a different thought: "Let Us Have Peace."


Eventually, John Hemenway Duncan was hired and produced a design based on one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus; for the twin sarcophagi at the base of the memorial the model, aptly or not, was the tomb of Napoleon in Paris.


The interior spaces, especially as un-peopled as they were, can truly be described as monumental, especially the open spaces on the upper level and under the dome.


Two circular rooms off the main chamber contain flags of some of the units of Grant's armies, and a frieze around the wall has maps below it, showing the main battles of the Civil War.


In fact, the Civil War was clearly much more on the minds of the designers than his presidency, even though that occupied a longer period of his life. Perhaps, by the 1890s with Reconstruction a memory and Jim Crow on the rise, his military victories were more acceptable than his Presidential accomplishments which included appointing African-Americans and Jews to important Federal jobs and prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan.


At any rate, all of the massive paintings in the dome display scenes from the war, and at the level of the sarcophagi, all the niches in the surrounding gallery are filled with busts of five of his leading generals.



Oh, I promised you the joke. But first, one of the more unusual aspects of the Tomb's setting. In 1972, the concrete benches that had been in the entrance plaza were removed and replaced by what was described at the time as the largest public art work in America, a seventeen-part 400-foot long series of tiles benches inspired by Gaudi benches in Parc Guell, Barcelona and organized by City Arts, a non-profit that creates projects connecting youth and artists.


The project was immediately controversial; many felt it was disrespectful to the Tomb, which they called a masterpiece of American Renaissance architecture (opinion reserved!) Others thought they belonged in a playground, or were just ugly. But they persisted long enough to be subject to the law of unattended parks, which is to say they eventually began to fall apart. 


In 2008, they were moved to a new location, wrapping the walkway around the building rather than in front of it, and they were meticulously restored. They are still there, they still seem to be in need of care, and are probably still capable of creating controversy...if more people were there to see them.


Oh, come on. You already know the joke: "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" But you probably didn't know that there are people out there seriously analyzing the two common answers. Go take a look!


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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