Whose Burden Is Grant's Tomb? Illinois Aims to Claim a Native Son
CHICAGO — AS the Civil War general lionized for saving the Union, Ulysses S. Grant probably would have sooner sung ``Dixie'' than support a state agitating against federal authorities.
Yet, today, even Grant, the reticent 18th president of the United States, would probably join Illinois lawmakers in a civil war of words against Washington.
The General Assembly is taking up a resolution that calls on the federal government to either restore the famed but neglected mausoleum on the Upper West Side of New York City known as Grant's Tomb or turn over Grant's remains to Illinois.
``While a lot of people in the neighborhood [of the tomb] almost 100 years ago were familiar with the heritage of a great American like Grant, I don't think that's true any more,'' says state Rep. Ron Lawfer, sponsor of the resolution.
If federal officials fail to reverse the decline of Grant's Tomb, Representative Lawfer hopes to secure the general's remains for his constituents in Galena. The northwest Illinois town has built a thriving tourism enterprise based on the fact that Grant resided there for a year.
Illinois lawmakers criticize federal officials for allowing drug dealers, graffiti vandals, and the indigent to overrun the mausoleum on the western outskirts of Harlem in New York City.
``It's a national disgrace,'' says Frank Scaturro, a Columbia University senior and Grant fancier who last November began a one-man campaign to publicize the ruin of the tomb.
Even the National Park Service, which administers the tomb, acknowleges that the granite edifice is often defaced with graffiti and littered with crack vials, trash, and other detritus. Moreover, the dome on the edifice leaks and many of its elaborate faces are in need of urgent repair, the park service says.
Still, the decline of the mausoleum has been exaggerated and unjustly attributed to neglect rather than to inadequate funding, according to Douglas Cuillard, the deputy superintendent of Manhattan sites for the park service. Estimates for the complete renovation of the tomb run at several million dollars.
Critics say the park service has funds for maintaining Grant's Tomb, but federal officials favor monuments to more popular presidents and other high-profile structures.
``The problem is a matter of bureaucratic misunderstanding and neglect,'' says John Simon, executive director of the U.S. Grant Association and Southern Illinois University history professor.
Like the stolid, columned tomb, public esteem for Grant has declined since the general's interment. Some 1 million people annually visited the mausoleum in the years just prior to World War I. Now, no more than 70,000 people each year tour the mausoleum.
Today, Grant is inadequately appreciated for his presidential accomplishments, in part because his reserved political style falls flat in 20th-century America, says Dr. Simon. ``[Grant] ... had the essence of devotion to duty and Victorian reticence about his own attributes. He didn't like newspaper publicity, and he did not court any kind of public relations,'' he says.
Mr. Scaturro, the Columbia undergraduate, is more blunt: ``Grant is distinctly unglamorous and does not provide a role model for the yuppie of the 1990s, that's for sure.''
Although the style of Grant would not endear him to MTV, his record shows a political substance that is progressive. Grant ``was a determined champion of black civil rights even when they were extremely disfavored, not only by Americans, in general, but by pillars of the historical community,'' according to Simon.