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The Battle for Grant’s Tomb

May 2024
21min read

It might seem that building a mausoleum to the great general would be a serenely melancholy task. Not at all. The bitter squabbles that surrounded the memorial set city against country and became a mirror of the forces straining turn-of-the-century America.

When Groucho Marx asked, “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” on “You Bet Your Life,” he was offering unsuccessful competitors, battered by his heckling and bewildered by the game, a chance for redemption and some easy money. In return for Grant’s name would come a small prize, some audience applause, and a farewell handshake. As a last effort to reward a hapless guest, “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” soon came to symbolize the obvious.

In fact, the occupants of Grant’s Tomb are Ulysses S. and Julia Dent Grant. But had Groucho asked, “What was buried in Grant’s Tomb?” he might have touched off very different speculations. For interred within the great mausoleum overlooking the Hudson River are a series of unexpectedly bitter controversies, testimony to some unresolved and perhaps unresolvable issues facing the late nineteenth century. The debates surrounding the design of the tomb, the campaign to raise the funds, the festival created for its dedication, and, above all, the struggle over where to house Grant’s body—all involved significant choices. And some of the passions they roused have not yet disappeared.

Grant’s Tomb, of course, was and is a monument. In the 1880s, the decade of Grant’s death, monument building was relatively new to Americans. According to legend, republicans were ungrateful to their heroes. At the time of the Revolution some Americans sought, through vast and imposing edifices, to put the lie to such myths. The more ambitious proposals came to naught, but a few cities managed something. Baltimore constructed a Washington Monument impressive enough to earn it the nickname of the Monumental City. Charlestown, near Boston, erected a granite obelisk commemorating the Battle of Bunker Hill. And most impressive—and humiliating —of all was the District of Columbia’s Washington Monument, designed by the architect Robert Mills as a great shaft rising from a circular temple. Though the cornerstone was laid in the 1840s, the obelisk was not completed for more than thirty years, and the temple itself was omitted.

Despite these major efforts, memorials recalling heroic deeds or famous lives were rare. For the most part our Presidents were buried quietly, without ostentation; often they lay in village cemeteries or on their own estates. George Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon was a favorite visiting spot, but it was picturesque rather than imposing.

The aversion to impressive monuments, to pomp, and to militarism came to an abrupt end, however, in the 1860s. With hundreds of thousands dead and battlefields stretching from Pennsylvania to Louisiana, the postwar generation developed a new landscape of sacrifice. Memorials could now become links between past and present, demonstrations that heroism had not evaporated into a haze of materialism. Their style, their means of financing, and their ceremonies of dedication became important. Individual philanthropists often supported monument campaigns, but large gifts violated the need for broad community participation; patriotism demanded this generation show the same spirit of sacrifice it celebrated. And far from home the states erected markers on battlefields where their regiments had fought so bravely; Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, and Antietam became great open-air shrines.

These monuments were designed by a growing band of specialists. By the 1870s the once-modest corps of sculptors and architects had swelled into something like an army. Hopeful Americans sailed to Italy, France, and Germany for instruction, and many returned home with polished skills and impressive ambitions or remained abroad, awaiting commissions. While individual patronage helped immensely, only community support would do for those seeking work on a grand scale. Monument building seemed a solution to the problem of artistic sustenance. Massive and expensive statues, tombs, columns, and arches could employ a whole profession and fulfill those lavishly patriotic motives.

The terms of the first contest to design the tomb enraged architects; but many of them entered it nonetheless.

And it was not only the war dead who received such honor. Soon statesmen, sailors, poets, firemen, scientists, inventors, and preachers were being immortalized in marble and bronze. Their statues, along with benches, gateways, bell towers, flagpoles, shelters, and fountains, were making an Age of Monuments. The New York Times spoke darkly of the “mania for monuments.” There seemed little selectivity. “The land is cluttered with stones that try ineffectually to lift leaden names out of the dust …,” complained The Nation. Eager to demonstrate corporate recognition, Americans were increasingly celebrating mediocrity.

The “American volunteer at rest, with his hands folded on the muzzle of his gun,” William Dean Howells’s character Annie Kilburn felt, had become “intolerably hackneyed and commonplace.” The bulk of the other monuments, one New York newspaper charged in 1882, were barren and worthless. Why were American monuments so poor? The answer was threefold. First, many were created by professionally undeserving or even incompetent artists chosen by open competition. Second, many were dedicated to the memory of obscure figures. And third, quite a few were placed in unseemly settings. Some single great example might well reverse the baleful trend. But who would the figure be? And who would choose the artist? Select the place? And raise the money?

Thus, in July 1885, when Ulysses S. Grant lost his battle with throat cancer, many American sculptors and architects felt an undeniable sense of anticipation. Grant was the greatest American of his age. Twenty years after Appomattox his military accomplishments had grown into legend. The scandals of his Presidency had receded into the shadows created by subsequent political indiscretions. And he had thoroughly rescued his reputation by the heroic struggle to provide financial independence for his family by finishing his autobiography. At the time of his death Grant stood high in the hearts of his countrymen. Clearly he would have some monument, and it would be a big one.

Planning and discussion began almost immediately. Many cities would erect statues of one kind or another, but the great prize would be to house the general’s body. Unlike the cases of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Andrew Jackson, Grant’s monument would be his tomb. There seemed general agreement about this, although the precedents were not numerous. The most elaborate presidential monument completed before the 1880s had been the one built for Abraham Lincoln in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. It was not a successful gesture. The awkward obelisk never became an effective symbol for the War President. That place would be filled by the log cabin until Henry Bacon created the great Greek temple in Washington forty years later. The Lincoln Memorial, not the Lincoln Tomb, became the popular icon.

A more powerful marker would, in fact, soon be under construction in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery. The grief surrounding the assassination of James A. Garfield in 1881 spurred a large subscription drive for his tomb. The Garfield Memorial, designed by a Hartford architect, George A. Keller, was probably America’s first great mausoleum, with a 180-foot-high Romanesque turret, mosaics, bas-reliefs, and a heroic statue of Garfield, who lay buried in a bronze casket in the crypt. But this design was chosen only in 1884 and would not be completed for several years. And the procedures followed by the Garfield Monument Association did not excite universal admiration; indeed, they forecast the difficulties Grant’s Tomb would face.

There was certainly little problem raising the money. Almost immediately after Garfield’s death prominent Ohioans created a committee and issued circulars; banks, newspapers, and postmasters leaped to assist; and governors appointed their own commissioners. With a goal of $250,000, Ohio proposed to raise $100,000 for its favorite son. Within a year Clevelanders had contributed $73,000, and by March 1882, half the total sum had been gathered. A Garfield Monument Fair, complete with military parade and attendance by President Chester A. Arthur, was actually held in the United States Capitol. It was an unprecedented action—and an unimitated one. Crowds did considerable damage to the building, and the fair brought in only $7,500. However, it was one of the campaign’s few failures.

By the fall of 1883, two years after beginning, the managers had collected $150,000 and began their efforts to obtain a design. And here came the problems, particularly for the architects. The monument trustees set aside $1,000 for the winner. Outraged by the modest sum, The American Architect and Building News, in October 1883, called on “gravestone manufacturers’ apprentices and kindergarten pupils” to compete, declaring that although the compensation was about the “meanest … offered for any artistic work,” it would pay the winner “for the time needed to stick a few ready-made ‘emblems’ and stock modeller’s figures around a block, in such a way as to pass muster among a jury of politicians and financiers.” When The American Architect discovered, several months later, that the invitation had been published in foreign technical journals, it blushed for the country; “its mean and ignorant assurance appears doubly conspicuous by contrast with the terms of competition usually found there.”

The American Architect was only nine years old in 1885, but it was the most prominent periodical spokesman for the professional interests of architects. It was infuriated not only by the low award but also by the fact that the trustees consisted of nonprofessionals and reserved the right to reject all the designs while retaining the rights of ownership to any not called for within two months after the decision. American businessmen were “so accustomed to looking upon the artists or architects who scramble after their ‘jobs’ as an exquisitely helpless sort of fools [sic], that the idea of paying any regard to their weak complaints does not occur to them.…” The American Architect urged its readers to boycott the competition and assert their independence.

This professional unhappiness with the Garfield Monument Association’s procedures echoed the bitterness excited by hundreds of other competitions for courthouses, libraries, statehouses, and public monuments under way at this time in the United States. Many distinguished artists and architects opposed the open competition. They argued that it forced a great deal of free work. “A good design implies thought and labor,” wrote Frederic Crowninshield, “neither of which an artist of repute can afford to squander.” The Chicago firm of Burnham & Root, responding to a competition in which the sponsoring company was to retain the plans of unsuccessful competitors, insisted, “Our capital is our ideas, and we, of course, cannot afford to make you a present of them.” Truly accomplished designs would come in only by invitation and deserved some payment. Finally, architects and artists insisted that most members of competition committees were not properly trained and therefore could not evaluate the submissions. Again and again editorial writers argued that ordinary judgment was not sufficient to judge artistic merit. “The public,” complained The American Architect, “pleased with the new idea that everybody can do every thing, and judge of every thing, and deprived of its old standards of propriety, bestows its favors with a catholicity that makes no distinctions between the capable and the incapable.” The Nation noted that while the federal government “requires special skill in a Fish Commissioner, an astronomer, [and a] statistician,” it requires “only good intentions of an architect.”

The demands by artists and architects for official recognition and professional respect fitted the times. In the 1880s and 1890s a series of American occupational groups sought better control over their own training and recruitment, setting up examination methods and licensing procedures, establishing fee schedules, and setting professional standards. Occupational subcultures developed in fields ranging from plumbing and printing to law and medicine; annual conventions, societies, and periodicals helped promote occupational interests. Artists and architects joined the trend, and they were quick to resent apparent insults. The invitation to participate in an Atlanta statehouse competition suggested to the editors of The American Architect that its committee regarded architects as “beings perhaps a little superior to field laborers, but inferior to clay-eaters.” When E. E. Myers of Detroit won the commission for the Colorado Capitol, The American Architect admitted it was a good design but expressed its astonishment that “a man of so much ability should hold his talents so cheap as to lavish them on such ill-paid and thankless work as the construction of the Colorado Capitol upon the terms proposed.” A Cleveland firm had returned the competition announcement to Denver, declaring it a “fine bit of satire as well as slightly impertinent,” and adding that no architect “of standing and self-respect” could participate.

But the system of competition did have its defenders. It was an ancient means of recognizing younger artists who could not rely on reputations or connections for clients. Hundreds of young architects endured the indignities of open competition, hoping that lightning would strike and an unknown be chosen. This rarely happened, of course. And when it did, committees often turned execution of the design over to someone who was experienced with working under deadlines and who could make necessary modifications.

Such was the state of professional opinion in 1885, when the first preliminary plans to create a burial place for General Grant emerged. Public sentiment was powerful. Grant’s funeral that August touched off waves of affectionate recollection, and a Grant Monument Committee formed within a week of his death. The members were wealthy and powerful New Yorkers. They included former mayors and governors, former President Arthur, Hamilton Fish, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jesse Seligman, and J. P. Morgan. The committee sought a million dollars, a huge sum for the day, but gifts poured in almost immediately, Western Union leading off the major donors with $5,000 and an offer of free wire service for subscription purposes. Within six months the Monument Association was incorporated and had raised $115,000.

The tomb, said one critic, would become “the great typical example of American art.”

The American Architect, to be sure, was suspicious. It thought the sum announced was unnecessarily large, and it mistrusted the judges. Thus, just two weeks after Grant’s death, it announced its own competition. Asking architects to suspend momentarily their prejudices against such competitions, it hoped to demonstrate that good designs could be relatively inexpensive and set a limit of $100,000 on projected cost. The prizes would be modest—the three winners receiving only $50 each—but it was a chance to show how architects evaluated their own. The judges included Henry Van Brunt, a distinguished Bostonian about to begin a great practice in Kansas City, and Charles A. Cummings, also of Boston. One of the winners, Harvey Ellis, of Utica, New York, became a noted designer of buildings and furniture, associated with the Prairie School and the Craftsman movement. The others, C. S. Luce of New York and O. Von Nerta of Washington, D.C., are lost to fame. But hundreds of plans and suggestions flowed in, and some twenty were published in the journal.

Although none of these was adopted for the tomb, the interest reflected a sense of pressure. Supporters of American art feared that a disastrous choice for this massive memorial would shame and humiliate American genius. The North American Review envisioned the Grant Monument as a reflection upon American civilization, which would “stamp us as the monuments of other lands and civilizations mark the power and beauty or weak ugliness of their national spirit.” Canvassing the possibilities, it rejected both the “voluptuous gloom” of Egypt and the classical Greek: “We do not live in the soft Nilotic air.” Gothic was impossible “for the modern mind to grasp”; the Albert Memorial, whose allegorical groups “resemble nothing so much as the triumphal entry of Barnum’s circus into a provincial town,” demonstrated this.

Only the Roman remained, more particularly the middle period of the Roman Empire. This, said the North American Review, made sense. America and Rome were much alike; both loved luxury, pomp, and size. And, too, Grant himself was a great captain in the Roman mold. The question was: Roman arch, column, or great round building? The conclusion: The Grant Monument had to be a “round Roman tomb of noble dimensions treated as to its details in Romanesque style.”

The following year the Century Magazine agreed with its competitor that the Grant Monument involved grave responsibilities for American artists. Whatever it looked like, “it will be everywhere known and will be everywhere accepted as the great typical example of American art.” Though other fates have befallen Grant’s Tomb, this has not become its destiny. But the hyperbole suggested the very urgent sense of importance surrounding the planning, the feeling that here at last lay a crucial opportunity for American architects and sculptors to demonstrate their skill.

When the terms of the actual competition were announced, the Architectural League of New York and the American Institute of Architects registered sharp protests. The provisions seemed indefinite, cost limits were unclear, designs were to be submitted in different media and in different scales, the Monument Association could assume property rights in chosen designs, the rewards were insufficient in number and amount, and there was no guarantee that the winning architect could supervise his design at the standard rate. One clause of the competition invited particular scorn. It invited architects to indicate the rate they would demand to execute the commission. “While it is in accordance with extremely mercantile spirit to endeavor to obtain the maximum of value at the minimum of payment,” the AIA lectured the Executive Committee of the Grant Monument Association, “yet such a principle applied to artistic work has a most depressing effect on talent, fails to call out high ideas, and drives eminent practitioners entirely away.” The American Architect doubted that any of its readers would take part.

Nonetheless, sixty-five drawings or models were submitted, and the Monument Association appointed a distinguished jury of experts to examine them. George Post, James Renwick, and Napoleon Le Brun were among the judges. But as of February 1890, more than four years after the death of Grant, no suitable design had been chosen. Prizes were given to five declared winners, but the experts said that no plan seemed suitable. The jury recommended that the competition be closed and nothing further be done with the designs. The New York Times now argued that the procedure had been impossible, because of a “rule of the profession … [that] men of established position shall not compete on the remote chance of the acceptance of their design.” Only novices or unsuccessful designers would enter. The Grant Monument Association, concluded the Times, had spent more than a year and $3,500 learning what architects had told them in September 1885: an invited competition was the only way. After five years the association had no monument plan and a fund of only $140,000. Things looked bleak.

There was trouble on other fronts as well. In 1890 the local rivalries that continued to shape national politics, supported by strong antimetropolitan sentiment, exploded in New York’s face. There had always been some ambiguity about where Grant’s Tomb should be. Grant died a resident of New York, but he hadn’t lived there at all before becoming President. Indeed, he came to Manhattan only after returning from his extensive world tour in 1879, a mere six years before his death.


But Grant did make the suggestion himself. In July 1885, knowing he was dying, the general handed his son, Col. Frederick Grant, a slip of paper on which he had written a few sentences. He indicated three possibilities for his grave. Illinois was one because it was there he received his first general’s commission. West Point was a second, but it was not suitable because his wife could not be buried beside him. And New York was the third because, in Grant’s words, “her people befriended me.” New York was eager for the honor, and within days of the general’s death a committee of New Yorkers took Grant’s son on a tour of various burial spots. Family agreement was secured; Mrs. Grant was especially supportive. New Yorkers immediately began to raise money. Not everyone was happy, particularly residents of other cities and states that resented New York’s pretensions. But for the moment they had to accept the inevitable.

Five years later, however, there was room for doubt. Grant still lay in a temporary tomb; distracted by other things and hampered by ineffective leadership, the Monument Association had raised only a third of the necessary funds. Disgruntled Grant loyalists grumbled that their hero was being insulted by a group of lackadaisical New Yorkers. In mid-1890 Preston B. Plumb, a United States senator from Kansas and a Civil War veteran himself, introduced a bill requesting the removal of Grant’s remains to Washington for burial at Arlington Cemetery. One month later, in August, the resolution passed the Senate and its sponsors immediately introduced it into the House of Representatives.

The New Yorkers, of course, were infuriated and resentful. As intense lobbying began, the New York delegation defended the association’s conduct and tried to explain away the delays. The city, after all, had been generous to disaster victims of the Johnstown flood and the Charleston earthquake, and it was outrageous to charge it with apathy. Defenders, including Rep. Rosewell P. Flower, Tammany Democrat and future governor of the state, sprang forward to champion the patriotism, altruism, and compassion of New York. Congressman John Raines, stimulated by the fact that the House resolution requesting removal had been introduced by a Pennsylvania congressman named Charles O’Neill, ransacked history to reveal that “when Pennsylvania was trembling with fear the citizen soldiers of New York rushed to her rescue. Call the role of the regiments who stood for three days at Gettysburg,” Raines cried, “and it would be found that one-third of them were from New York.”

Other New Yorkers joined the battle, one seeing in the resolution attitudes that “savored of a rancorous spirit,” flying in the face of tradition, “something abnormal and monstrous.” Many national heroes—George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, Giuseppe Garibaldi—lay buried at their homes. New York had been Grant’s home, and it was absurd to contemplate removal. They added that the Bunker Hill Monument had taken some seventeen years to complete; the Washington Monument, thirty-seven. The Grant delays had been minimal.

Such arguments did not melt the opposition. Resentful or suspicious of New York’s greatness, congressmen from elsewhere insisted that more people would visit Grant’s body if it lay at Arlington. He deserved to be buried within sight of the Capitol. They argued that newspaper sentiment favored removal and added that the New Yorkers defending Gettysburg had also been defending New York. And New York was not the only state to contribute to Johnstown flood victims.

Not since Napoleon’s remains came home to France, said a witness, had a ceremony equaled “in solemnity and importance” the tomb’s dedication.

In the end, after impassioned speeches, the resolution was defeated late in the year by a margin of almost three to one; 92 congressmen supported it, 134 opposed. Democrats were particularly strong in their opposition to removal. But New York took note of its major regional enemies—Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois—and their leading figures, including William McKinley, who had demonstrated how eager they were, “in all matters, to vote against the wishes of the metropolis.” Resentment of the big city would continue to be a factor in American life, as would New York’s contempt for the hinterlands.

The year 1890 turned out to be critical. Not only was the congressional danger escaped, but a final design was selected. Abandoning the open competition, the Monument Committee invited a group of five well-known architects to submit plans. From these it selected John H. Duncan, designer of Brooklyn’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch. Duncan had devised a tomb based on the Mausoleum of Hadrian, a square Doric temple surmounted by a great granite dome. The desires for a Roman monument, voiced by some American journals five years earlier, had been answered.

The drawings of all the entrants—including Napoleon Le Brun and Carrère & Hastings—went on public exhibition, and there was general satisfaction at the committee’s choice. Duncan’s plan had been designed by a reputable architect and promised to stay within the budget. Moreover, as The New York Times pointed out succinctly, it “will not be ridiculous.” As far as American public monuments went, this was “much more than a negative advantage. It could not have been attained,” the Times continued, warming to a favorite theme, “by one of the promiscuous ‘open competitions’ under which the certainty of securing the service of competent architects is thrown away for the desperate chance of bringing to light some unknown genius.” Indeed, as the Times ruminated about the winning design in a series of editorials, it became more enthusiastic, praising the seventy of Duncan’s Doric, superior to the florid Roman motifs displayed in Italian Renaissance churches.

The Duncan design, finally, would be impressive from any vantage point. Seen from either the Hudson or the shoreline, north or south, the tomb was certain to impress the bystander. The struggle over the mausoleum, in fact, besides shedding light on professional self-consciousness and regional rivalry, hinted at the coming power of the City Beautiful movement, the great effort of the nineties and after to make American cities handsome and heroic. Grant’s Tomb offered New York a major environmental opportunity; accessibility, grandeur, and site availability were not always so well matched.

The upper Manhattan location had been determined rather quickly. The committee formed in 1885 to get Grant’s body for New York took the general’s sons to three possible sites: one on Central Park’s Mall; another on Watch Hill, near Eighth Avenue and 110th Street; and a third in the new Riverside Park. This was the spot the Grant family chose. Within fifteen years the area would be bounding with activity. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine was being built slightly to the south and east; indeed, it is still being built. During the 1890s McKim, Mead & White were supervising the construction of Columbia University’s new campus, which opened in 1897. Other monuments would follow. Increasingly Morningside Heights was being described as an American Acropolis, filled with cultural and educational institutions.

But in 1885, when the site was first announced, The American Architect, suspicious of every aspect of the plan, charged New York with appointing a “huge committee of its most eminent beer-sellers, brokers, politicians, and railroad-men” to persuade Frederick Grant to yield the more accessible Central Park Mall (favored by The American Architect) for a “neglected and remote strip of unimproved land adjoining the Hudson River Railroad tracks. …” The mayor of New York, a Riverside Park supporter, argued that the dead should not lie “remote from Nature.” The American Architect agreed. But to build this “costly monument, to the most distinguished person of the age, in an uncultivated and uninhabitable strip of land in the rear of the present metropolis” was “carrying aesthetic sensitiveness too far.” The area was unreachable, “except [to] goats,” and the only beneficiaries would be the “owners of the cheap and neglected lots fronting the Park.” One New York newspaper reacted energetically, labeling this position “grotesque” and “astonishing.” And The American Architect retreated. It agreed that Riverside Drive was already the “noblest urban drive in the world,” but it continued to call the site “neglected and remote.” However, by the mid-1890s, as it became clear that the Upper West Side would be served effectively by mass transit, and as population flowed in, the debate subsided.

There were actually excellent topographical reasons for the choice of Riverside Park. Its height and visibility permitted easy view by river traffic, and it could be part of an immense natural theater for the holding of the elaborate patriotic pageants that were just then coming into vogue. The tomb’s setting permitted great crowds to look south upon processions or to look west and see great lines of ships passing in review. The Grant funeral, in 1885, hinted at what would come in 1889, with the centennial of Washington’s inauguration; in 1893, with the World’s Columbian Exposition; and in 1897, with the dedication of the tomb. The crowds gathering to mourn Grant were among the largest New York had ever seen. As its backers hoped, Grant’s Tomb would become an important part of the city’s public landscape, an anchor for great ceremonies. The professional concerns of American architects and the regional jealousies fighting the tomb’s location were no less typical of the period than this search for suitable civic forms. The cornerstone layings, the parades, the expositions, and the victory celebrations of the nineties summarized this larger effort and the civic culture of the day.

There was one last way in which the building of Grant’s Tomb reflected the realities of modern America, and that was through its fund raising. With the congressional crisis passed and a design selected, the Monument Association could breathe more easily. But it still had less than a third of the money in hand, and after a brief, ugly spate of bickerings, public accusations, and resignations, the association took decisive action. In February 1892 it chose for its president Gen. Horace Porter, one of Grant’s military secretaries, a vice-president of the Pullman Company, president-general of the Sons of the American Revolution, and future ambassador to France. Energetic, single-minded, and devoted to Grant’s memory, Porter set in motion a whirlwind campaign. He organized New York’s trades, professions, and institutions into several hundred committees with some twenty-five hundred members who agreed to canvass for subscriptions. Day after day, through March and April 1892, newspapers announced the new committees: Dry Goods Importers; Shirt Manufacturers; Wallpaper and Furniture Decorators; Diamond and Silversmiths; Architects; Paper Manufacturers; Hotelmen; Physicians; Attorneys; Brokers; and so on and on. Clubs were covered; so were schools and colleges. Contribution boxes appeared in elevated railway stations, in banks, in department stores. An auction of paintings raised almost $3,500. Appeals were made in churches. Porter promised that the necessary $350,000 would be collected in sixty days. After one month of work, by April 27, 1892, Grant’s birthday, some $200,000 had flowed in, and President Benjamin Harrison laid the tomb’s cornerstone. Chauncey Depew delivered an address in which, on the one hand, he deprecated the glory of centralized power and the splendor of national Valhallas like Westminster Abbey but, on the other, seized such dignity for Gotham, asserting that Grant had selected New York for his final resting place because it was “the metropolis of the continent and the capital of the country.” Thus, the very act of building the monument caught the tensions between New York’s cosmopolitan ambitions and the hostility which they aroused.

By May 30, after sixty days of work, General Porter announced that $350,700 had been added, all but $22,000 of the total by New Yorkers. The city’s honor had been sustained. In the end some ninety thousand separate contributions created a fund reaching almost $600,000. The extra moneys paid for the great sarcophagus, a seventeen-thousand-pound piece of red granite quarried in Montello, Wisconsin.

And so, on April 27,1897, almost twelve years after Grant’s death, in an elaborate set of ceremonies, the Monument Association turned the tomb over to New York City. “Since the transfer of Napoleon’s remains from St. Helena to France, and their interment in the Hôtel des Invalides,” General Porter had written, no function equaled “in solemnity and importance” the dedication of Grant’s Tomb. With sixty thousand marching troops, a parade of ships sailing up the Hudson, with choral societies and bands, in the presence of one million spectators, the President of the United States, the Vice-President, the mayor of New York, ambassadors, generals, admirals, and thirteen governors, Grant Day arrived. Despite the enormous enthusiasm, not everyone was totally satisfied. Reviewing the finished tomb, The Critic found the superstructure well designed and proportioned but not large enough to crown the great supporting base. Column lengths were unsuitable, and the tomb lacked the necessary sculpture. Americans would “have to be content with bigness and with the dignity of the monument’s location.”

Sectional rivalries also continued to rankle. The governor of Illinois was upset; his state received last position in the parade. “New Yorkers, I suppose,” Gov. John Riley Tanner told the press, “do not know that Grant came from Illinois.” Moreover, Tanner complained, he had received only three tickets for the ceremonies. Perhaps, he speculated, New York was short of money; the tickets did cost five dollars apiece.

Today, with controversial new forms of art surrounding it, the great mausoleum no longer focuses attention on its original purpose.

Other governors were also upset by the order of the march. New York justified the precedence they received by insisting that positions were assigned to the states in the order of their admission to the Union. This accounted for placing Illinois last among the thirteen. But it didn’t explain why New York was first.

Philadelphia newspapers raised another issue. They were worried that their National Guard units’ participation in the tomb ceremonies might lead to their boys’ missing a local Washington Monument dedication a short time later. New York’s wickedness, they warned, would expose the guardsmen to temptation. The New York Times replied tartly that Philadelphians were depressed because their troops might discover the difference “between a real city and their big town” and suggested that Pennsylvania’s reluctance was economic. Their citizen soldiers would visit New York, compare their uniforms with those of other, more generous states, and return home with expensive demands.

All this, however rancorous, was minor. The Philadelphians attended and enjoyed themselves. So did the Illinoisans. And there was little question about the splendor of the site or of the dedicating pageant. Grant Day turned out cold and blustery, but Riverside Park proved spectacular. While The New York Times admitted that the display did not quite equal the recent coronation of the czar, it insisted that this was the greatest parade in American history and demonstrated our advances in pageant making. Aided by the “sinuosities and inequalities” of the roadway, spectators throughout Riverside Park caught marvelous vistas of the land parade, and the naval display was appropriately imposing. Flowers and decorations abounded throughout the city: in churches, hotels, and shopwindows. Both the “noble pleasure ground,” as the Times called Riverside Park, and the host city apparently justified their choice.

New York, moreover, turned the occasion into an economic event as well. Merchants persuaded railroads to lower their excursion rates and permit visitors to spend time in the city transacting business before returning home. The result was so gratifying that the Merchants’ Association, originally organized on an ad hoc basis for Grant Day, announced it would become permanent, seeking semiannual excursion rates to encourage visits to New York. Modern tourism was rearing its head, and if the canonization of a President could help it along, New York accepted the advantages.

Thus, Grant’s Tomb passed into history and began its own journey into the iconography of Manhattan. Guidebooks, brochures, postcards, and advertisements soon made its features familiar to millions, and its location guaranteed flocking visitors. Today, surrounded by new and controversial forms of public art, this great mausoleum no longer focuses attention upon its intended purpose. Nor does it thrust before the public any sense of the drama its creation promoted. Grant’s famous words “Let us have peace” are inscribed upon its façade, and except for Groucho Marx and the graffitists, most have attended to this final request.

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