Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)

October 16, 1994


Author: Terence Samuel, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Edition: FINAL
Page: A02
Dateline: NEW YORK

Index Terms:

Estimated printed pages: 4

Article Text:

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 punchline to a moss-grown 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 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."

Respect for Grant's final resting place became a crusade.

Scaturro wrote memos and reports, including a 300-page behemoth, that he refers to as a whistle-blowing report. He said the Park Service fired him for it.

But the battle had been joined.

Grant family members joined 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, 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, for several years before the Civil War when his military career had hit the skids.

Illinois State Sen. Judy Baar Topinka, who describes herself as a Civil War buff, introduced the resolution.

"Whether you liked him or not, he was a U.S. President, and you don't desecrate their grave site," said Topinka. "You have the U.S. Department of the Interior not taking its responsibility seriously. They have let Grant's Tomb turn into a rat hole."

She sees a further irony in that Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general whose surrender to Grant ended the Civil War, is resting in a grand and honored tomb in Lexington, Va., with his horse Traveler nearby.

"Traveler has a better crypt than Grant," she complained.

Ulysses Grant Dietz, the Grants' great-great-grandson, said that in 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 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.

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; much of the worst graffiti has been erased.

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.

Many critics are skeptical. Topinka said that after the publicity died, the neglect would return.

"We'd like to put 110 percent of our effort into the monument we have right now," Scaturro said, "but the final resting place of a man who saved this nation from dissolution should be respected. It is better to have a smaller monument that is respected than to have this palatial monument that is used as a public bathroom."

The furor about the future may in fact be a debate about the national past, which heroes we remember, which memories fade. But Dietz said the central consideration was how and how much the nation continued to honor his great- great-grandparents.

He said moving them would be a tragedy. "They wanted to be there. Julia
went there every day for years. She had a long time to think about it. . . . The ultimate decision lies with them, the two who are buried there."


1. At Grant's Tomb, in upper Manhattan, a million-dollar renovation is planned.

Copyright (c) 1994 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Record Number: 9402250880