Crankster

Friday, November 23, 2007

Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb? Part One

The Death of Restraint


When I was a kid, my father had dozens of little routines that he constantly threw out. My sisters and I were placed in the role of straight man as he hit the key punchlines in various Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and Marx Brothers routines. One of his favorite lines was "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?"

Unfamiliar with Marx's TV show "You Bet Your Life," I always assumed that this was a legitimate question. After all, maybe they built a huge crypt for Grant, but then someone more deserving died, so Grant ended up in a narrow grave while some other ex-president or a supreme court justice was buried in his tomb.


This, by the way, is what happens when you get used to trick questions. I had a little trouble dealing with the obvious.

When I got a little older and began displaying my nascent tourism interests, I asked my father where Grant's tomb was. He told me that it was in New York. When I asked him if we could ever visit it, he gave me a vague answer that it was "up North" and that we might go there "someday."

Based on his evasive answer, I assumed that the tomb was located somewhere in upstate New York, maybe near the Canadian border, and that we would never visit it. Years later, after I came to the city, I realized why my father was so loath to visit the site: it was located above 59th Street. As I might have mentioned once or twice, my father had a little paranoia about the city, and Harlem might have been Timbuktu as far as he was concerned.

One day, after dropping George off at day care, I decided to stop in and visit Grant. After a little research, I found out that his tomb was located at 122th Street and Riverside Drive, about fifteen blocks South of George's day care.

When Grant died, the national outpouring of grief was immeasurable, and areas fought over the right to hold his body. After a lot of politicking, New York City gained the contract, and a huge public subscription paid for the structure itself. The then-president, Benjamin Harrison, used a golden trowel to lay the cornerstone. The tomb itself, the largest individual mausoleum in North America, was based on a few classical references, including the tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus (which was one of the wonders of the ancient world) and Napoleon's mausoleum. The original plan called for a spur of the Hudson rail line and a dock on the Hudson river so that pilgrims could use numerous routes to come pay their respects.

Ultimately, these plans were scaled back somewhat, and they abandoned the dock and rail spur. However, the site is still a little over the top. To get to the mausoleum, one walks down a long, tree-lined plaza. The building itself is a huge pile of marble and granite, with a huge rotunda, gigantic granite eagles, and angels surrounding the slogan "Let Us Have Peace."

Inside, it's even crazier. There are three mosaics that detail events in Grant's Civil War career, a huge open cutaway (or oculus, if you want to be really particular about it) in the middle of the floor that displays the high-gloss caskets of Grant and his wife. There are also side rooms containing flags from the war, as well as painted murals outlining the major battle sites. After I talked to the guard a little, he let me go down to the caskets on the floor below.

The coffins of Grant and his wife sat side by side in their underground area, surrounded by busts of famous Civil War generals. It is simultaneously intimate and overwhelming.

It is also a little tacky and excessive. After all, Grant ranks with Dubya and Warren G. Harding as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. By his own admission, he was in over his head as a politician and statesman, and his presidency was marred by one terrible scandal after another. This is not to underestimate his incredible performance as a general, and the amazing honesty of his memoirs, but Grant was a disastrous President.

When one considers the comparatively humble graves of Lincoln, FDR, Jefferson, and Washington (not to mention Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, and even Kennedy), the fact tht America's largest and most impressive tomb is dedicated to Grant seems downright insane.

On the other hand, it's an amazing space, and it makes me nostalgic for the days when people would dedicate millions of dollars to create incredible public monuments. Once upon a time, people decided that they wanted to honor their greatest general and worst president. They saved their money and built an outrageous memorial that dwarfs the imagination and honors both Grant and their own excessive exuberance.

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8 Comments:

  • Grant's Presidency was terrible because of the people he picked for public office, not because of his own actions. W should have never gone into Iraq, but nothing would have kept him out. But, I am opinionated here.

    Grant's basic integrity is what made him so appealing. As a general, a President, and a human being. It's probably why he wasn't a good President. Great post, as usual.

    By Blogger The CEO, At November 23, 2007 at 6:14 PM  

  • CEO-
    Fair points all. Unfortunately, Grant's ironclad integrity and his bottomless loyalty worked against him, as his friends brought him down.

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 24, 2007 at 9:27 PM  

  • See, as long as you live in NYC, I don't have to visit these sites, You are like Fodors or something! The info on history, location and all is great.

    By Blogger My Reflecting Pool, At November 25, 2007 at 7:25 AM  

  • Pool-
    Thanks! Looking back, though, I think I tend a little to the morbid.

    And you gotta go to Grant's tomb, if only to have your picture taken with the gargantuan birds!

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 25, 2007 at 10:10 AM  

  • hmmm...Grant probably wouldn't have wanted this grandiose thing, don't you think?

    By Blogger Claudia, At November 25, 2007 at 1:34 PM  

  • Good point. I think it would have humiliated him.

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 25, 2007 at 2:49 PM  

  • It's a little early to rate George W as a bad prez. Wait 20 years. It's easy to look back now and see that Jimmy Carter was the worse prez in my lifetime.

    By Blogger Greg Gardner, At January 10, 2008 at 6:01 PM  

  • Greg-
    Gotta say, Bush is doing a good job of combining the worst mistakes of Carter with a few discoveries of his own.

    By Blogger Crankster, At March 8, 2008 at 4:41 PM  

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