Several presidents have called NYC home at some point in their lives but only one has made the city his final resting place. General Ulysses S. Grant may not have had as strong a tie to the city as Theodore Roosevelt or Chester Arthur, but even though Grant only lived in NYC for four years, for the past 123 years the city has served as the site of his tomb. Grant’s Tomb, officially known as the General Grant National Memorial, is one of NYC’s most underrated sites and it isn’t visited as often as it should. For the few who do visit it, it’s worth the trip, as Grant’s Tomb is full of surprises.
The First Surprise: The Location
When you think of Riverside Drive, you think of fancy people in fancy apartments who get to take daily strolls in their fancy Riverside Park. But I, for one, wouldn’t peg the area along Riverside Drive to be presidential-level fancy; it’s seems too peaceful for all that pomp. But to the surprise of myself and many others, tucked away near the top of Riverside Drive at 122nd Street is a giant monument that would fit in perfectly in Washington, DC rather than New York City. And this leads to…
The Second Surprise: The Beauty of Grant’s Tomb
You’ll find many examples of neoclassical architecture in New York City, but there’s no neoclassical building in the city that matches the beauty of Grant’s Tomb. Modeled after the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus in Turkey, the exterior of Grant’s Tomb has two rows of thick Doric columns at the front of the memorial, is topped with a huge round cupola, and has two granite eagles standing guard at both sides of the building.
There are even more jaw-dropping things to look at once you make your way inside, from the intricate carvings on the inner dome of the cupola to the three paintings depicting Grant’s crucial moments during the Civil War. When you descend into the basement of the mausoleum, you’ll be a few feet away from the twin sarcophagi containing the remains of General Grant and his wife Julia. Make sure to walk around the perimeter of the basement where you’ll find five busts of Union generals watching over the couple as they lay in eternal rest. Before you leave the site completely, be sure to cross the street and stop by the visitors center to learn the story of the man to whom all this is dedicated.
The Third Surprise: The Story of Ulysses S. Grant
The architecture is stunning but what impressed me the most about my visit to Grant’s Tomb was the man’s story. Ulysses S. Grant was not destined for greatness. He was an ordinary child and a mediocre student. After graduating from West Point in 1843, Grant bounced around from job to job, not finding anything that suited him as struggled to provide for his wife and four children. Although Grant wasn’t cut out to be successful as a tanner or as a shop clerk, his true talents lay in the art of war. Grant’s successes on the battlefield led President Abraham Lincoln to make him the Commanding General of the entire Union Army during the Civil War. Four years after the war, Grant was elected president of the United States. Although his presidency wasn’t scandal-free, Grant made a sincere effort to ensure African-Americans had full rights as U.S. citizens.
Grant left the presidency a popular man. He even took a world tour, where he met Queen Victoria, Emperor Meiji of Japan, and became the first president to visit Jerusalem. But upon his return, Grant’s life took a turn for the worst. A Bernie Madoff-esque crook swindled the Grants out of all their money. And to make matters worse, around the same time that Grant learned he was broke, he also learned that he had a terminal form of throat cancer. Determined not to leave his family destitute, Grant spent the last few months of his life rushing to write his memoirs, starting the writing at his apartment on East 66th Street in New York City and then finishing it in the cool mountain region of Mount McGregor. Grant died four days after the book’s completion. He didn’t get to see that the memoir brought his family $400,000 ($10 million in today’s money).
Although Grant’s Tomb drew half a million visitors in early 1900s, by the 1970s, like many sites in the city, it fell into a state of neglect. Vandals graffitied the granite slabs, while drug users made it a scenic place to get their fix. Finally in the 1990s, a Columbia University student started a campaign to restore the memorial. Visually, Grant’s Tomb has reclaimed its former glory, but the site and the man himself have become somewhat forgotten. Hopefully, the History Channel’s new three-part miniseries on Grant will lead to revival of interest in the site and the man.
Do you think Grant’s Tomb is an underrated site? Let me know in the comment section.
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