History and Public Art at Grant’s Tomb

There is often an interesting tension between opposites in New York City: historic vs. modern, classical music vs. hip hop, street art vs. vandalism … This dynamic is part of what makes the city exciting and guarantees that you’ll never be bored if you’re looking for something to do. A visit to Grant’s Tomb, located in the Morningside Heights neighborhood on Manhattan’s upper west side, near Columbia University, gives visitors an unexpected opportunity to explore two very different ways of thinking about public spaces.

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Grant’s Tomb is the resting place for the 18th president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, and his wife Julia Dent Grant. It celebrates not only his leadership as president but also his leadership as the commander of the Union army during the American Civil War. Many people don’t realize that, after Grant’s presidency was over, he lived the rest of his life in New York. After Grant’s death from throat cancer in 1885, people from around the world donated money to build a memorial in New York City. Grant’s Tomb was ultimately dedicated on April 27, 1897. Today, Grant’s Tomb is official known as the General Grant National Memorial and is part of the National Park Service. The Memorial’s website states that the Tomb is the largest mausoleum in the United States.

The outside of the Tomb is imposing, with tall iconic columns. One of my favorite things on the exterior is this quote, clearly a reference to the American Civil War: “Let us have peace.”

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Inside, the architectural details are stunning, particularly the domed ceiling and accompanying murals.

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You can find the Grants’ sarcophagi in the mausoleum’s lower level, although they are visible from above. The lower level also contains a series of bronze busts of several other Civil War generals, created as part of the Works Progress Administration arts program in the 1930s.

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The formality of Grant’s Tomb is contrasted with the public art that surrounds it. By the 1970s, Grant’s Tomb was in poor condition because of vandalism and graffiti. CITYarts, a nonprofit organization, worked with artist Pedro Silva and architect Phillip Danzig to create a series of seventeen concrete benches, covered in mosaic tiles, that frame the Tomb on three sides. National Park Service and community leaders hoped that engaging the community in the project would reduce vandalism, and the project did have that effect. Titled “The Rolling Bench,” the project brought together artists and members of the surrounding community, including many children. Some of the designs in the project relate to Yellowstone National Park, which became a national park during Grant’s presidency, but there are also other themes. The benches are delightful, with whimsical shapes and intricate details.

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As I researched to find out more about the CITYarts project, I discovered that the benches were almost removed in the late 1990s. As Grant’s Tomb approached its 100th anniversary, the National Park Service had decided that the benches did not match the solemn tone of the memorial. Officials determined that the benches would be moved to a different location, but the public outcry in opposition to the plan persuaded the National Park Service to abandon its efforts. Thus, you can still see the amazing mosaic benches at their original location.

Here are a few more photos showing some of the mosaic details. (There’s plenty more to see when you visit though – don’t forget, there are 17 benches in all!)

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How do you get to Grant’s Tomb? The Memorial is located in Riverside Park, at the northern end. If traveling by subway, take the 1 train to the 125th Street Station. You can also reach the Memorial by bus – take the M4, M5, or M104.

11 thoughts on “History and Public Art at Grant’s Tomb

  1. Here is a video of Phillip Danzig I made while in a film school on Lafayette Street, wish I could remember the name of the school, attached to the bar where there was poetry readings. Glad I got to meet Phil, he was proud of his mosaic tile work. How do you like that, this article recently posted, reading about Mosaic Man Village/Astor Place, made me think of Phil.

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