Grant Won the Civil War, But His N.Y. Tomb Is Losing the Urban Wars : Monument: Resting place of Civil War victor is scarred by vandals and neglect, a hangout for the homeless. One citizens’ group is fighting to restore the memorial to its glory.
The general who lost the Civil War lies in genteel eternal repose in a pristine mausoleum inside an ivy-covered limestone-and-brick chapel on a verdant college campus in northwestern Virginia.
About 350 miles north of the final resting place of Robert E. Lee is the tomb of the general who won the war, Ulysses S. Grant. It’s a hangout for drunks, dope smokers, the dispossessed.
Here, granite pillars scarred by vandals and neglect provide shelter for the homeless. Makeshift beds of plastic bags, newspapers and blankets lie beside a pile of trash. There’s a bottle of Thunderbird wine, just up the deteriorating steps from a bottle of malt liquor. Around the corner is an empty $10 bag of marijuana.
Grant’s Tomb has long been a punch line. Groucho Marx asked contestants on “You Bet Your Life” who was buried there. These days, the tomb of America’s 18th President is just a joke--although nobody’s really laughing.
All four walls of the General Grant National Memorial, opened 96 years ago to hold the Civil War’s greatest hero--who was also the 18th President of the United States--are badly stained from two decades of graffiti and the rigors of its removal. The name of one vandal, “Rase,” is visible three times on the tomb. Grant’s name does not appear at all.
It wasn’t always this way. The tomb opened April 27, 1897, funded by $600,000 in donations from 90,000 Americans. Standing 150 feet tall on a bluff above the Hudson River in New York City, the tomb was dedicated on the 75th anniversary of Grant’s birth.
Tens of thousands of people turned out as warships fired salutes, and the memorial outdrew the Statue of Liberty in its early years. Times change. As Grant’s Tomb aged badly, Lady Liberty received a $66-million face lift in the mid-1980s.
Officials say that red tape will make any major cleaning of tomb’s exterior impossible for at least two more years.
Meanwhile, garbage blows across the cracked stones of its plaza, where weeds and grass sprout unchecked. Bird droppings foul its base.
“It is left undefended, unguarded, uncared for,” says John Y. Simon, executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Assn. “The situation there has simply become awful.”
It gets worse. Workers arrived one morning last May to find someone had defecated outside the tomb’s entrance and run a garbage can up its flagpole, according to a National Park Service volunteer. The homeless routinely use the tomb as a bathroom; legitimate visitors find there are no bathrooms for them.
On the afternoon of Veterans Day--a gorgeous, sunny autumn day--the tomb was closed to the public. It was just as well: Inside, where Grant and his wife, Julia, are entombed, there are more problems.
The mausoleum is poorly lit, some exhibits are inaccurate, and the place could use a thorough cleaning. A rare 1843 photo of a 21-year-old Grant was stolen two years ago and never replaced. Another large photo, identified as Grant, is actually someone else, says Park Service volunteer Frank Scaturro.
The tomb--the largest mausoleum in the United States--is open five days a week, eight hours a day. For the other 128 hours, the Park Service ignores the site: No security, no rangers, no maintenance crews.
“The National Park Service has totally abdicated responsibility for the site,” says Scaturro, a Columbia University senior who has worked at the tomb since 1991.
The Lee Chapel, on the Lexington, Va., campus of Washington and Lee University, stays open seven days a week, “a quiet place for meditation and reflection,” according to administrators.
The chapel underwent a $370,000 renovation in 1962-63, says R.C. Penniston, director of the facility. What about graffiti since then? Any vandals?
“No, no, no. If we caught them, we’d break their arms,” the retired U.S. Navy captain says. “In 17 years, I’ve never seen anything like that. People come in here very respectful.”
A recently formed advocacy group, the Friends of Grant’s Tomb, blame the problems on the National Park Service, which took over the site 34 years ago from the private Grant Memorial Assn.
“The Park Service does not maintain decent security,” Simon says. “It’s in a neighborhood where other people do. Consequently, the undesirables congregate at Grant’s Tomb.
“They cannot at Columbia University. They cannot at Riverside Church. In effect, they have been given Grant’s Tomb.”
The Park Service blames a lack of funds and the social ills that plague the whole city: homelessness, addiction, delinquency. There’s also a Catch-22: Money goes to more popular sites, and visitors go to better-kept sites.
The Park Service says 100,000 people a year still visit. But George M. Craig, of the Friends of Grant’s Tomb, says he believes the actual number is only about 40,000--a contention backed by Scaturro.
The creation of a community task force in early 1992 helped reduce some problems, but nothing has been solved, Park Service officials acknowledge.
“We still have some incident reports reflecting certain types of anti-social behavior,” admits Joe Avery, the Park Service’s acting superintendent of Manhattan sites.
Word of the site’s problems filter back to Grant’s descendants, who are more sad than angry.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s too bad,” says 85-year-old Edith Grant Griffiths, the President’s great-granddaughter, from her home in Ft. Belvoir, Va. “People keep bringing the subject up, but nobody has a solution that is feasible.”
Scaturro, 21, prepared a 300-plus-page report on the site’s myriad problems. He recounts the mornings when the smell of urine from unwanted overnight guests forced him to hold his breath and run inside. He remembers the post-Fourth of July firecracker assault on one of the large eagles outside the tomb.
The bottom of the eagle’s beak was blown off in July, 1992. Nearly a year and a half later, the damaged statue has not been repaired.
Such problems don’t plague the Big Three presidential memorials in Washington: The Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument. Graffiti is instantly removed. Cleaning crews come in every day. Personnel or park police have the sites under almost constant supervision.
The government spends $1.15 million on maintenance alone at the Washington Monument; $773,650 at the Jefferson Memorial; and $733,419 at the Lincoln Memorial.
The total annual budget for Grant’s Tomb--including the salaries for three rangers, two maintenance workers, and all operating costs--is $323,000.
But it’s not just the big sites that get the big bucks. At President William McKinley’s grave in Canton, Ohio, a seven-year, $3-million restoration project is nearly complete.
There have been some improvements at Grant’s Tomb over the last two years. The mausoleum’s upper level, with its breathtaking view of the Hudson, recently reopened. It had been off-limits because there was no one to work upstairs.
“I’m optimistic. I think we’ll be able to pull this off,” says Craig, whose group hopes to raise private funds to help out. “It won’t be immediate. But if we pump some money in, maybe people will start to look and listen.”