A tomb may seem like a strange place to celebrate someone’s birth, but this Sunday, the General Grant National Memorial plans to commemorate the 192nd birthday of Ulysses S. Grant.
Most New York City visitors probably haven’t even heard of the memorial in Riverside Park, let alone seen it. But the final resting place of the 18th president and his wife was once more popular than the Statue of Liberty.
Its celebrity stemmed from Grant’s status as the general who ended the Civil War and laid the path for reconciliation between the North and South. At the time of his death in 1885, he was considered to be the equal of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
“The demonstration that accompanied his death was the largest outpouring of public grief that anyone had recorded in history,” said Frank Scaturro, president of the Grant Monument Association. Some 1.5 million people attended Grant’s funeral. The procession, which ended at the future site of the memorial, was seven miles long.
But as Grant’s popularity faded over time, the monument fell into obscurity.
“With the decline of Grant in the history books, it was accompanied by this decline in the physical condition of the monument, but also in its visitation and its popularity,” said Scaturro.
As a volunteer at the tomb while a student at the nearby Columbia University in the 90s, Scaturro was appalled by its condition. “There would be this urine stench after I’d go up the steps through the portico, where the homeless would camp out right by the front door of the monument itself,” he said. “I’d have to hold my breath when I would go there in the morning.”
The two eagle statues flanking either side of the monument were regularly blown up when hoodlums would put firecrackers in their beaks, prompting the National Park Service to keep a ready stash of replacements, or “bag of beaks,” according to Scaturro.
Grant’s descendants were so upset at the state of the resting place that they wanted the body of the former president and first lady moved. Scaturro launched a media campaign drawing attention to the monument’s plight, which was covered by local TV and in The New York Times. In 1994, he joined a group that sued several federal officials and agencies, demanding they repair the monument.
Although Scaturro’s whistleblowing efforts led to his dismissal as a volunteer, they ultimately paid off. The National Park Service unveiled the memorial’s $1.8 million facelift on Apr. 27, 1997, a century after the tomb’s opening and on the anniversary of Grant’s birth. Scaturro is widely credited as a catalyst
This Sunday, Scaturro and the National Park Service will join cadets from West Point in paying tribute to the general.