The Battle for Grant’s Tomb

The tomb, said one critic, would become “the great typical example of American art.”

The American Architect, to be sure, was suspicious. It thought the sum announced was unnecessarily large, and it mistrusted the judges. Thus, just two weeks after Grant’s death, it announced its own competition. Asking architects to suspend momentarily their prejudices against such competitions, it hoped to demonstrate that good designs could be relatively inexpensive and set a limit of $100,000 on projected cost. The prizes would be modest—the three winners receiving only $50 each—but it was a chance to show how architects evaluated their own. The judges included Henry Van Brunt, a distinguished Bostonian about to begin a great practice in Kansas City, and Charles A. Cummings, also of Boston. One of the winners, Harvey Ellis, of Utica, New York, became a noted designer of buildings and furniture, associated with the Prairie School and the Craftsman movement. The others, C. S. Luce of New York and O. Von Nerta of Washington, D.C., are lost to fame. But hundreds of plans and suggestions flowed in, and some twenty were published in the journal.

Although none of these was adopted for the tomb, the interest reflected a sense of pressure. Supporters of American art feared that a disastrous choice for this massive memorial would shame and humiliate American genius. The North American Review envisioned the Grant Monument as a reflection upon American civilization, which would “stamp us as the monuments of other lands and civilizations mark the power and beauty or weak ugliness of their national spirit.” Canvassing the possibilities, it rejected both the “voluptuous gloom” of Egypt and the classical Greek: “We do not live in the soft Nilotic air.” Gothic was impossible “for the modern mind to grasp”; the Albert Memorial, whose allegorical groups “resemble nothing so much as the triumphal entry of Barnum’s circus into a provincial town,” demonstrated this.

Only the Roman remained, more particularly the middle period of the Roman Empire. This, said the North American Review, made sense. America and Rome were much alike; both loved luxury, pomp, and size. And, too, Grant himself was a great captain in the Roman mold. The question was: Roman arch, column, or great round building? The conclusion: The Grant Monument had to be a “round Roman tomb of noble dimensions treated as to its details in Romanesque style.”

The following year the Century Magazine agreed with its competitor that the Grant Monument involved grave responsibilities for American artists. Whatever it looked like, “it will be everywhere known and will be everywhere accepted as the great typical example of American art.” Though other fates have befallen Grant’s Tomb, this has not become its destiny. But the hyperbole suggested the very urgent sense of importance surrounding the planning, the feeling that here at last lay a crucial opportunity for American architects and sculptors to demonstrate their skill.

When the terms of the actual competition were announced, the Architectural League of New York and the American Institute of Architects registered sharp protests. The provisions seemed indefinite, cost limits were unclear, designs were to be submitted in different media and in different scales, the Monument Association could assume property rights in chosen designs, the rewards were insufficient in number and amount, and there was no guarantee that the winning architect could supervise his design at the standard rate. One clause of the competition invited particular scorn. It invited architects to indicate the rate they would demand to execute the commission. “While it is in accordance with extremely mercantile spirit to endeavor to obtain the maximum of value at the minimum of payment,” the AIA lectured the Executive Committee of the Grant Monument Association, “yet such a principle applied to artistic work has a most depressing effect on talent, fails to call out high ideas, and drives eminent practitioners entirely away.” The American Architect doubted that any of its readers would take part.

Nonetheless, sixty-five drawings or models were submitted, and the Monument Association appointed a distinguished jury of experts to examine them. George Post, James Renwick, and Napoleon Le Brun were among the judges. But as of February 1890, more than four years after the death of Grant, no suitable design had been chosen. Prizes were given to five declared winners, but the experts said that no plan seemed suitable. The jury recommended that the competition be closed and nothing further be done with the designs. The New York Times now argued that the procedure had been impossible, because of a “rule of the profession … [that] men of established position shall not compete on the remote chance of the acceptance of their design.” Only novices or unsuccessful designers would enter. The Grant Monument Association, concluded the Times, had spent more than a year and $3,500 learning what architects had told them in September 1885: an invited competition was the only way. After five years the association had no monument plan and a fund of only $140,000. Things looked bleak.