Grave Mission Frank Scaturro, A Longtime Fan Of Gen. Ulysses Grant, Was Appalled To Discover The Low Estate To Which Grant's Famed Tomb Had Fallen. So He Mounted A Campaign To Set Things Right.

Posted: February 16, 1995

NEW YORK — Frank Scaturro was awed by the sight: In the distance a great domed memorial rose 150 feet from a bluff on the Hudson River in Upper Manhattan. Eight thousand tons of granite and six years of work by hundreds of men had gone into building the largest mausoleum in America.

It was supposed to be a place of honor for Ulysses S. Grant, the tough, cigar-smoking Civil War general who saved the Union and went on to become the 18th president of the United States. For a time, it was; more visitors came here than to the Statue of Liberty.

But four years ago, when Scaturro got a closer look at Grant's Tomb - as a volunteer and seasonal ranger for the National Park Service from 1991 to 1993 - he saw a national disgrace.

Homeless people slept in the portico. Human waste, crack vials and beer cans littered the site. Graffiti and fractures covered granite surfaces. And peeling paint and water stains marred ornate interior walls.

A longtime Grant admirer, Scaturro was so appalled that he started a restoration campaign with the same unrelenting drive that made the general famous - and wound up capturing the attention of the country.

Oh, the power of one persistent man.

"This is more than just a granite monument in a city park," said Scaturro, now 22 and a University of Pennsylvania Law School student, during a recent visit to the memorial. "This monument deserves respect, not only out of respect for the dead, not only out of respect for Ulysses S. Grant as an individual, but also out of respect for those values he represents and values that continue to be meaningful in our national existence."

When he was 20, Scaturro wrote a 325-page report on the problems at the site that he'd observed in his two years as a Park Service volunteer, and sent copies to the media and federal officials.

After he gave a New York TV news crew a tour of the deteriorating site, the Park Service fired him. Then several things happened.

Grant's descendants petitioned the federal government to restore the site. Some members of the Illinois legislature suggested that the remains of Grant and his wife should be moved to Galena, Ill., where the general briefly lived. And a bill was introduced in Congress to preserve the memorial.

Today, work is finally being done.

The Park Service last year increased the memorial's operating budget for fiscal 1995, ordered round-the-clock security and started a $375,000 exterior and interior renovations project. It also expects to spend an additional several hundred thousand dollars on other restoration work.

"But we need much more," said Scaturro.

*

Frank Scaturro first took an interest in U.S. Grant when he was 7 years old, soon after his parents bought a set of encyclopedias.

He was "fascinated by the 'p' volume, with its history of U.S. presidents," he said, and by age 12, he'd focused on three chief executives - Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt.

"I thought all of them were misunderstood by historians," said Scaturro. ''But Grant was uniquely misunderstood - as a general and president. His enemies stuffed the ballot box of history by monopolizing the supply of literature that would be passed on to future generations." Grant was president from 1869 to 1877.

Scaturro continued his study of Grant in 1990 as a freshman at Columbia University here. He lived in a dormitory a few blocks from the tomb and offered his time as a volunteer there.

"It was the obvious next step," he said. "I remember how very imposing the memorial seemed, almost frightening. . . . I never anticipated, never dreamed of the public confrontation that would develop."

His first day of work in 1991 fell on Grant's birthday, April 27 - the only day of the year when the Park Service held Grant-related activities.

"I had as good an impression of the site's condition as a person could have," he said. "But a month after the ceremony, after the West Point guards left and family members had gone, the monument was subjected to extensive graffiti attacks."

Scaturro started detailing the problems in a journal that grew with each day of work.

"See here. Look at the scars and discoloration on this granite," he said, as he gazed on walls in the portico last month. "This is from the graffiti and from people using it as a bathroom."

He pointed to a crack running through a column, orange stains and fractures in the floor, and brown water marks on sculpted plaster ceilings in the rotunda.

Even the historical interpretation needed help. Captions were missing from pictures in the displays. Some photos were defaced.Beautiful murals were painted over. Mosaic benches, incompatible with the character of the site, were added.

Scaturro said he suggested solutions to deterioration in a series of memos while he worked at the site. He offered to fix the captions. He proposed a donation box. He sought the installation of a presidential flag to honor Grant as a president as well as general.

Nothing happened, he said. And soon, his journal became a lengthy report that was sent to President Clinton, members of Congress, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the media.

"Whistleblowing was the last resort," Scaturro said. "I only did what I did because I had no other resort . . . the only thing left was abandoning the site and that was not an alternative to me."

The old soldier knew death was near in that summer of 1885 but he refused to give up until he had won one last battle.

Dressed in a silk top hat, white scarf and overcoat, he sat in a wicker chair on the veranda of a cottage at Mount McGregor, near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., writing his memoirs while a steady stream of well-wishers filed by to see the great man.

Through a haze of morphine to relieve the pain of his throat cancer, Ulysses S. Grant finished the project, then turned his attention to the site of his burial. West Point was his first choice because of his military career. Galena, Ill., was another because he received his first general's commission there. But New York City was a good site "because the people of that city befriended me in my need."

In the end, Grant left the decision to his wife, Julia. In his last letter, found in a pocket after his death at age 63 on July 23, 1885, he asked her ''to select what you think the most appropriate place for depositing my earthly remains."

After many proposals, the Grant family accepted the offer of the memorial in New York's Riverside Park. About 90,000 people donated $600,000 for the construction of a mausoleum fit for the likes of an Alexander the Great or Napoleon Bonaparte.

Indeed, the columned building looked like an ancient temple, partly because it incorporated elements from the tombs of King Mausolus at Halicarnassus, Roman emperor Hadrian and President James A. Garfield.

It was dedicated on Grant Day, April 27, 1897, the 75th anniversary of his birth, a day celebrated with huge parades and ships firing salutes on the Hudson. The general's body was laid in an 8 1/2-ton red granite sarcophagus. Five years later, his wife's remains were placed at his side in an identical sarcophagus.

"The site was well-cared for after that," said Scaturro. "It needs to be cared for once again in the spirit of those who built the monument a century ago."

The Grant Monument Association maintained the tomb until 1958, when it was turned over to the National Park Service.

In the expansive rotunda of the Grant memorial, Scaturro scanned the scribbled messages left by visitors on the pages of a sign-in book.

"Please give the general the respect due him," wrote one Long Island, N.Y., man last month. "Clean up this place."

"The tomb is too great a national treasure to be without a military guard," wrote another man.

Scaturro couldn't agree more.

"Here's one of the great ironies," said Scaturro, a New York City native. National Park officials "were the beneficiaries of what Grant did as president. . . . It was President Grant himself who signed the act creating Yellowstone National Park in 1872, this country's first national park. That act was the genesis of the National Park system."

Doug Cuillard, Park Service deputy superintendent who helps oversee sites in Manhattan, said the contract the agency awarded last year for restoration work includes the repair of the dome, caulking, repointing and cleaning of the granite, and replacement of the wood beams and scaffolding in the dome's interior.

"The project is clearly the result of the whistleblowing," said Scaturro. ''They say they've had plans in the works for a long time, but they did nothing." The Park Service also is planning to spend several hundred thousand

dollars on restoration of the rotunda and murals, and upgrading of the wiring and lighting, Cuillard said.

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.) introduced a bill last year providing for the restoration and completion of the memorial by April 1997 - 100 years after it was dedicated. The bill must be reintroduced in the current session and needs a Senate sponsor.

But Scaturro isn't taking anything for granted. He reestablished the Grant Monument Association last year and is now trying to raise money for more preservation work with the help of others in the group, including Grant descendants.

"We're merely looking for the federal government to do what they should have been doing all along," said Scaturro. "I think President and Mrs. Grant would be saddened that the government he fought to save is showing disrespect to him and the men who fought with him."

Standing at the visitors' sign-in book, Scaturro left his own message:

"Hoping for the restoration of this monument by its 1997 centennial."

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|