Amid the debate over whether to keep Confederate monuments in public places, the tomb of the commander who achieved victory over the Confederates and who as president laid the foundations for the federal government as protector of civil rights needs help.
On March 28, 2019, the Grant Monument Association (GMA) submitted a letter to President Donald Trump, relevant members of Congress, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio reporting on maintenance and operational deficiencies at Grant’s Tomb and urging remedial action, as well as the need to complete the Tomb and improve the learning experience of visitors.
Grant’s Tomb, officially if confusingly named the General Grant National Memorial in 1959, is a national park, which explains why federal elected officials are responsible for the site. But New York City owns the plaza north of Grant’s Tomb, which includes the memorial marking Grant’s temporary tomb site, the south plaza, and the overlook pavilion across the street that currently serves as a makeshift visitor center. These are integral parts of the site, even though they are on city rather than federal park land. They add a layer of administrative confusion to existing problems:
Security and maintenance deficiencies. In earlier decades, through the early 1990s, vandalism and other forms of desecration marred both the Tomb and the surrounding grounds down to the then-abandoned overlook pavilion. In response, the congressional delegation at the time secured increased appropriations to refurbish the Tomb and the adjoining front plaza and to provide security. The latter took the form of a contract between the National Park Service (NPS) and a private company to provide two security guards during the hours the monument is closed.
Amid the budget cuts of recent years, however, the number of guards has been reduced to one. That is simply insufficient. Not only did the monument suffer a graffiti attack during the government shutdown early this year, when security was absent. Another major attack occurred even after the government reopened: On or about the night of February 15, 2019, the back of the Tomb, near the northwestern corner of the monument, was hit by more graffiti—an extensive attack involving three different colors of paint. This time, there was a security guard present, but he was in front of the monument, and by the time he detected what happened, it was too late. The apparent perpetrators of this vandalism, one male and one female, reportedly vaulted over the eastern retaining wall before the guard could catch them. The area involved is simply too large to expect a single security guard to provide effective protection and enforcement.
Additionally, the site faces mounting maintenance problems, some more recent and others lingering for years. Within the Tomb, there is visible discoloration and peeling from water damage at the cupola/roof level, as well as in the ceilings above the two reliquary rooms. It is unclear whether the water damage this reflects is ongoing, but repair is clearly necessary, as is adequate monitoring to ensure that any such damage be appropriately repaired before the problem gets worse. Additional discoloration not believed to arise from water damage has long afflicted the marble floor surrounding the sarcophagi of Ulysses and Julia Grant.
As the NPS acknowledged more than two years ago in its Project Management Information System (PMIS) proposal describing the need for repairs, the broken, cracked outdoor plaza surrounding the Tomb “has become so deteriorated it has become a safety hazard.” The granite that constitutes the Tomb’s steps and adjoining south plaza, including the two stairways that lead to the sidewalks, also shows some wear.
The black fence that encloses the temporary tomb site behind the monument, which contains a plaque in Chinese and English along with memorial trees planted at the direction of Chinese Viceroy Li Hung Chang in 1897, is weathered and bent in a distortion of its original shape. The nearby grassy area requires landscaping to spruce up large areas that have become dirt.
The monument’s external nighttime lights were repaired in 2017, but the lighting is basically limited to the inside of the front portico, the lower part of the cupola, and whatever light from the city park lamps dimly illuminates the Tomb—a far cry from the lighting that illuminated the Tomb early in its history, and which today lights up both the Washington Mall’s presidential memorials and any number of less prominent presidential and Civil War monuments.
Insufficient visitor access and facilities. The overlook pavilion across the street from the monument, which once provided public restrooms before being abandoned for over 40 years, reopened in 2011 to accommodate a ranger station, gift shop, public restrooms, and small exhibit space. While that marked an improvement for a site that had not been making use of this space or offering any public restrooms, the combination of budget cuts and the need to staff the property has seriously diminished visitor access to Grant’s Tomb. During the 1990s, when the site underwent a major refurbishment following years of desecration and neglect, its open hours expanded from five to seven days a week. That remedied a deficiency that kept the site closed two days every week, to the consternation of many visitors who had traveled long distances.
In recent years, however, budget crunches led to the reversal of this improvement as the Tomb returned to a five-day schedule. While the rangers at the site are excellent, they are spread so thin that the Tomb proper has been closed for staggered hours even during its five open days because rangers are needed to staff the overlook pavilion as well. This marks a regression in visitor access to a point even worse than during the days of desecration. The GMA has heard from a number of visitors who were chagrined at their inability to enter the monument. The Tomb proper should be open to the public seven days a week throughout the year and adequately staffed for the entirety of its open hours.
Additionally, the visitor facility falls short on meeting visitor needs. While the space dedicated to the gift shop suffices for that purpose, the remaining space offers only two single-user restrooms, which is inadequate. Large crowds that include sizable tour bus traffic regularly visit the monument.
The remaining visitor space is a multi-purpose room that squeezes in 40 chairs, a screen for audio-visual programs, two small display cases containing artifacts, and six small exhibit panels on the wall with text and pictures to illustrate Grant’s life and the history of the Tomb. Visitors to the site deserve more than a cursory introduction to Grant. The NPS should have space adjoining the Tomb allocated for interactive exhibits in order to leave visitors with an appreciation of Grant’s life and rich legacy, from preserving the Union to fighting for civil rights. Along with expanded restroom facilities, such a facility would serve as a more complete visitor center. M. Garland Reynolds, chairman of the GMA’s Building Committee, has made preliminary studies about using available underground space on the western side of the monument or constructing a new facility behind the Tomb, and architectural studies conducted for the NPS in 1965 suggest an alternative entrance to the crypt level that could be provided to the handicapped and others from the southwest corner of the monument. There are likely numerous architectural possibilities to consider. What is important as a first step is acknowledging the need to meet the objective.
Visitors and others among the general public would also be better served by greater access to the NPS’s collection of a vast archive of artifacts relating to Grant’s life and the history of Grant’s Tomb—some of which have been digitized and made accessible via the NPS’s Manhattan Historic Sites Archive, but that process should be completed for the entire collection.
Completion of the Tomb. Those responsible for the construction and administration of Grant’s Tomb prior to the NPS recognized from its earliest days that the monument had yet to be completed. Two features in particular were still missing when the monument was dedicated: a crowning figure for the summit of the building, which consists of an empty pedestal, and an equestrian statue of Grant. In his dedication day address in 1897, GMA president Horace Porter referred to the crowning figure as a goal to be reached in the near future. The finial was even added to the photo of Grant’s Tomb on the cover of the official dedication day program. In 1925, John Duncan, the architect of Grant’s Tomb, recalled that the original design for the Tomb included a “group of statuary” on the cap of the building, but the reduction in size of the monument, necessitated by cost, reduced the scale so that it would prohibit using a group; and the only finial possible would be a single figure—that of peace . . . .” That would also reflect the spirit of the Tomb’s epitaph, “Let us have peace.”
An equestrian statue of Grant also made its way into the earliest designs for the Tomb, and architect John Russell Pope envisioned such a statue, situated in front of the monument, as the “one main sculptural motif” in his 1928 plan to redo the plaza surrounding Grant’s Tomb. The plaza was ultimately redone, but the Great Depression prevented the equestrian from being funded.
The Ulysses S. Grant Bicentennial. April 27, 2022, barely over three years from now, will mark the 200th anniversary of Grant’s birth. So it could not be more timely to finally address the above issues. Two other measures that would be appropriate for this anniversary: (1) the authorization of a Grant commemorative coin, with proceeds from its sale used to defray the cost of maintenance and operations at the site; and (2) posthumous promotion of Grant as “General of the Armies of the United States,” the highest army rank in U.S. history, effective April 9, 1865, the date General Robert E. Lee surrendered to him. Only one active-duty officer, General John J. Pershing, has held this rank, and in 1976, it was conferred posthumously upon George Washington, with the appointment effective July 4, 1776.
Appeal to Congress. While the congresses of the 1990s succeeded in increasing appropriations to the monument, they failed to pass specific bills that would have addressed so many of the above problems. H.R. 1774, introduced in the 104th Congress (1995), would have expanded the park boundaries to include the integral parts of the site owned by New York City; required perpetual U.S. army honor guards to protect the site; provided for an adequate visitor center and the site’s completion; and changed its name to the more familiar and traditional General Grant National Monument. Without that legislation, subject to the changing whims of the annual appropriations process, the site regressed. So we are back, over 20 years later, to ask again for the federal government to take corrective measures on behalf of Grant’s Tomb.
In response to the March 28 letter and to a direct appeal from General David Petraeus, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Minority Leader, stated: “There is no doubt: President Grant’s gravesite is in need of major upkeep to preserve his story and America’s rich history. I am proud to stand with the Grant Monument Association in calling attention to the needs of his plot, and will press the federal government to deliver the dollars needed.”
The GMA has had discussions with members of Leader Schumer’s staff, as well as the staff of Rep. Adriano Espaillat, who represents Grant’s Tomb’s district in the House of Representatives.
We will keep you updated and hope that necessary legislative measures are soon on their way. But they will need the help of concerned citizens across the country if they are to make their way through both houses of Congress. Please contact your member of Congress and your senators in support of the following goals: [Or: Please contact your member of Congress and your senators per the following announcement:[ending article here with ad immediately following]]
• Increase security at the site with a minimum of two guards, preferably drawn from the U.S. Park Police, at all times, and the installation of security cameras.
• Repair the discoloration and peeling from water damage at the cupola/roof level and reliquary room ceilings, along with any associated waterproofing deficiencies, and establish ongoing monitoring to prevent further damage.
• Remedy the discoloration of the marble floor surrounding the sarcophagi of Ulysses and Julia Grant following sound preservation standards.
• Repair the broken, cracked outdoor plaza surrounding the Tomb, including repointing and, where necessary, replacement of bluestone pavers, granite pavers, the monument’s steps, and the adjoining south plaza and two stairways.
• Ongoing maintenance of the stone plaza and stairway north of the Tomb, as well as repair or replacement of the black fence surrounding the temporary tomb site and restoration and maintenance of the landscape.
• Installation of enhanced outdoor lighting to properly illuminate the monument at night.
• Expansion of the park boundaries to include the overlook pavilion and roughly the southern half of the “island” of land on which Grant’s Tomb sits enclosed by the northbound and southbound lanes of Riverside Drive, from the area behind the north plaza’s temporary tomb memorial area to the stone plaza extending south from the entrance of the monument. This proposal is illustrated in Exhibits M and N to the letter.
• Complete the monument with a crowning finial for the summit of the building and an equestrian statue of Grant in the front plaza.
• Expand the open hours of the site to seven days a week throughout the year and ensure that staffing is adequate to provide public access to the Tomb proper during all open hours.
• Digitize and make accessible to the public all items in the NPS’s General Grant National Memorial archives. Update the archival catalog for accuracy, comprehensiveness, and optimal online access.
• Redesignate the monument as Grant’s Tomb National Monument.
• Authorize the creation of an expanded visitor center with space for improved, interactive exhibits, along with expanded restroom facilities and access to both the visitor center and the Tomb for persons with disabilities.
• Authorize a commemorative coin marking the 200th anniversary of Grant’s birth, the proceeds of which shall help fund maintenance and operations at the site.
• As a further bicentennial measure, pass legislation authorizing and requesting the appointment of Grant posthumously as “General of the Armies of the United States,” as was done for George Washington, with the appointment effective April 9, 1865.