The Battle for Grant’s Tomb


The American Architect was only nine years old in 1885, but it was the most prominent periodical spokesman for the professional interests of architects. It was infuriated not only by the low award but also by the fact that the trustees consisted of nonprofessionals and reserved the right to reject all the designs while retaining the rights of ownership to any not called for within two months after the decision. American businessmen were “so accustomed to looking upon the artists or architects who scramble after their ‘jobs’ as an exquisitely helpless sort of fools [sic], that the idea of paying any regard to their weak complaints does not occur to them.…” The American Architect urged its readers to boycott the competition and assert their independence.

This professional unhappiness with the Garfield Monument Association’s procedures echoed the bitterness excited by hundreds of other competitions for courthouses, libraries, statehouses, and public monuments under way at this time in the United States. Many distinguished artists and architects opposed the open competition. They argued that it forced a great deal of free work. “A good design implies thought and labor,” wrote Frederic Crowninshield, “neither of which an artist of repute can afford to squander.” The Chicago firm of Burnham & Root, responding to a competition in which the sponsoring company was to retain the plans of unsuccessful competitors, insisted, “Our capital is our ideas, and we, of course, cannot afford to make you a present of them.” Truly accomplished designs would come in only by invitation and deserved some payment. Finally, architects and artists insisted that most members of competition committees were not properly trained and therefore could not evaluate the submissions. Again and again editorial writers argued that ordinary judgment was not sufficient to judge artistic merit. “The public,” complained The American Architect, “pleased with the new idea that everybody can do every thing, and judge of every thing, and deprived of its old standards of propriety, bestows its favors with a catholicity that makes no distinctions between the capable and the incapable.” The Nation noted that while the federal government “requires special skill in a Fish Commissioner, an astronomer, [and a] statistician,” it requires “only good intentions of an architect.”

The demands by artists and architects for official recognition and professional respect fitted the times. In the 1880s and 1890s a series of American occupational groups sought better control over their own training and recruitment, setting up examination methods and licensing procedures, establishing fee schedules, and setting professional standards. Occupational subcultures developed in fields ranging from plumbing and printing to law and medicine; annual conventions, societies, and periodicals helped promote occupational interests. Artists and architects joined the trend, and they were quick to resent apparent insults. The invitation to participate in an Atlanta statehouse competition suggested to the editors of The American Architect that its committee regarded architects as “beings perhaps a little superior to field laborers, but inferior to clay-eaters.” When E. E. Myers of Detroit won the commission for the Colorado Capitol, The American Architect admitted it was a good design but expressed its astonishment that “a man of so much ability should hold his talents so cheap as to lavish them on such ill-paid and thankless work as the construction of the Colorado Capitol upon the terms proposed.” A Cleveland firm had returned the competition announcement to Denver, declaring it a “fine bit of satire as well as slightly impertinent,” and adding that no architect “of standing and self-respect” could participate.

But the system of competition did have its defenders. It was an ancient means of recognizing younger artists who could not rely on reputations or connections for clients. Hundreds of young architects endured the indignities of open competition, hoping that lightning would strike and an unknown be chosen. This rarely happened, of course. And when it did, committees often turned execution of the design over to someone who was experienced with working under deadlines and who could make necessary modifications.

Such was the state of professional opinion in 1885, when the first preliminary plans to create a burial place for General Grant emerged. Public sentiment was powerful. Grant’s funeral that August touched off waves of affectionate recollection, and a Grant Monument Committee formed within a week of his death. The members were wealthy and powerful New Yorkers. They included former mayors and governors, former President Arthur, Hamilton Fish, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jesse Seligman, and J. P. Morgan. The committee sought a million dollars, a huge sum for the day, but gifts poured in almost immediately, Western Union leading off the major donors with $5,000 and an offer of free wire service for subscription purposes. Within six months the Monument Association was incorporated and had raised $115,000.