- Historic Sites
The Battle for Grant’s Tomb
It might seem that building a mausoleum to the great general would be a serenely melancholy task. Not at all. The bitter squabbles that surrounded the memorial set city against country and became a mirror of the forces straining turn-of-the-century America.
August/September 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
The year 1890 turned out to be critical. Not only was the congressional danger escaped, but a final design was selected. Abandoning the open competition, the Monument Committee invited a group of five well-known architects to submit plans. From these it selected John H. Duncan, designer of Brooklyn’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch. Duncan had devised a tomb based on the Mausoleum of Hadrian, a square Doric temple surmounted by a great granite dome. The desires for a Roman monument, voiced by some American journals five years earlier, had been answered.
The drawings of all the entrants—including Napoleon Le Brun and Carrère & Hastings—went on public exhibition, and there was general satisfaction at the committee’s choice. Duncan’s plan had been designed by a reputable architect and promised to stay within the budget. Moreover, as The New York Times pointed out succinctly, it “will not be ridiculous.” As far as American public monuments went, this was “much more than a negative advantage. It could not have been attained,” the Times continued, warming to a favorite theme, “by one of the promiscuous ‘open competitions’ under which the certainty of securing the service of competent architects is thrown away for the desperate chance of bringing to light some unknown genius.” Indeed, as the Times ruminated about the winning design in a series of editorials, it became more enthusiastic, praising the seventy of Duncan’s Doric, superior to the florid Roman motifs displayed in Italian Renaissance churches.
The Duncan design, finally, would be impressive from any vantage point. Seen from either the Hudson or the shoreline, north or south, the tomb was certain to impress the bystander. The struggle over the mausoleum, in fact, besides shedding light on professional self-consciousness and regional rivalry, hinted at the coming power of the City Beautiful movement, the great effort of the nineties and after to make American cities handsome and heroic. Grant’s Tomb offered New York a major environmental opportunity; accessibility, grandeur, and site availability were not always so well matched.
The upper Manhattan location had been determined rather quickly. The committee formed in 1885 to get Grant’s body for New York took the general’s sons to three possible sites: one on Central Park’s Mall; another on Watch Hill, near Eighth Avenue and 110th Street; and a third in the new Riverside Park. This was the spot the Grant family chose. Within fifteen years the area would be bounding with activity. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine was being built slightly to the south and east; indeed, it is still being built. During the 1890s McKim, Mead & White were supervising the construction of Columbia University’s new campus, which opened in 1897. Other monuments would follow. Increasingly Morningside Heights was being described as an American Acropolis, filled with cultural and educational institutions.
But in 1885, when the site was first announced, The American Architect, suspicious of every aspect of the plan, charged New York with appointing a “huge committee of its most eminent beer-sellers, brokers, politicians, and railroad-men” to persuade Frederick Grant to yield the more accessible Central Park Mall (favored by The American Architect) for a “neglected and remote strip of unimproved land adjoining the Hudson River Railroad tracks. …” The mayor of New York, a Riverside Park supporter, argued that the dead should not lie “remote from Nature.” The American Architect agreed. But to build this “costly monument, to the most distinguished person of the age, in an uncultivated and uninhabitable strip of land in the rear of the present metropolis” was “carrying aesthetic sensitiveness too far.” The area was unreachable, “except [to] goats,” and the only beneficiaries would be the “owners of the cheap and neglected lots fronting the Park.” One New York newspaper reacted energetically, labeling this position “grotesque” and “astonishing.” And The American Architect retreated. It agreed that Riverside Drive was already the “noblest urban drive in the world,” but it continued to call the site “neglected and remote.” However, by the mid-1890s, as it became clear that the Upper West Side would be served effectively by mass transit, and as population flowed in, the debate subsided.