Who's buried in Grant's Tomb? Soon, maybe no one

October 20, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

NEW YORK — 1/8 TC NEW YORK -- Set aside for a moment the lawyers and their litigation, the politicians and their promises, and the whole thing begins to sound like an elaborate scheme to rewrite the punch line to a very old joke.

But some people are so unhappy about the deterioration of the General Grant National Memorial that they have sued the federal government. Implicit is the threat that if they don't get what they want, the answer to the trick question of the century -- "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" -- could be a simple "Nobody."

It would take an extreme set of circumstances for this to happen, but descendants and aficionados of Civil War hero Ulysses Simpson Grant say that if the national monument where the 18th president and his wife, Julia, are buried is not cleaned up, maintained and promoted, they might move the bodies elsewhere.

For now, the case is wending its way through the federal courts and government bureaucracy.

For many years, Grant's Tomb in upper Manhattan had fallen victim to the ravages of the city. Homeless people slept in the shelter of the portico. There were ribbons of graffiti wrapped around the granite monument, and custodians would sweep away crack vials in the morning before opening for business.

In addition, the monument -- 100 years old in 1997 -- was on the losing end of other battles. Time has left its mark: a leaky roof and peeling walls. The National Park Service, in the straits of uneven budgetary times, has been unable to do much.

This made some people mad. Frank Scaturro for one. He had decided by the time he was 13, only 10 years ago, that Grant the general and the president was underrated, underappreciated and just plain misunderstood.

After he entered Columbia University in 1990, he volunteered to work as a park ranger at Grant's Tomb, which sits on a small plateau overlooking the Hudson River near the Columbia campus. Modeled after the Mausoleum Harlincarnusus, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, it was in its day a grand tribute to a man who loomed large in the national consciousness. Time and events may have eclipsed Grant, but Mr. Scaturro saw the tomb's disrepair as a sign of dishonor and disrespect.

"On virtually a daily basis Grant's Tomb had been used as shelter and bathroom for homeless people," he said last week. "A urine stench persisted throughout the day. We found marijuana bags and crack vials. It was a place where people felt they could go to get stoned."

Grant family members joined Mr. Scaturro in calling for improvements.

One family member said an informal survey of the general's descendants showed that a majority were willing to move the remains if sufficient improvements were not made.

In April, Mr. Scaturro and family members filed suit against the Park Service.

And, in May, the Illinois legislature unanimously adopted a measure that if the City and State of New York, and the Park Service could not take proper care of the Grants, Illinois would take the bodies and build a fitting memorial there.

The Grants had lived there, in Galena, Ill., for several years before the Civil War when his military career had hit the skids.

Ulysses Grant Dietz, the Grants' great-great-grandson, said that spite of the concern, it was unlikely that the bodies would be moved.

"I think that it would take an extreme problem for us to move the bodies," said Mr. Dietz, a museum curator in Newark, N.J.

The tomb, which cost $600,000, was turned over to the Park Service in 1959, after the Grant Monument Association could no longer bear the upkeep, but the control of the remains has always rested with family members.

Mr. Dietz said the family not only wanted the tomb renovated but also restored to some prominence.

Partly because of what one Park Service official termed "negative publicity," changes have begun.

In the summer, the tomb was open seven days instead of five. An overnight security detail polices it.

Joseph T. Avery, the Park Service superintendent who oversees sites in Manhattan, said that a million-dollar, two-phase renovation is planned. In coming months, the 6,700-square-foot roof will be repaired, and the dome will get new drains and flashing. In the second phase, the interior will be cleaned and replastered.

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