An After-Dark Visit to Grant’s Tomb, North America’s Largest Mausoleum

General Grant National Memorial , CC/Wikipedia

I’m not exactly sure why my go-to thought as I slump against the glass doors of Grant’s Tomb is, “Oh my God, my mortal flesh is being possessed by first lady Julia Boggs Dent Grant,” but it is and, indeed, more than a week later, it remains so. My second thought is the poor National Parks employee in charge of Windex-ing these doors is not going to be a happy camper come Monday morning.

Ranger Ann had just called a group of about two dozen people assembled for the 7 pm tour of the tomb when I almost collapse on architect John Duncan’s granite steps modeled on a tomb in Bodrun, Turkey, built after the Persian governor Mausolus – whose very name lends itself to our word for grand tomb – died in 353 BC.

I look up at the neoclassical rotunda pulsing through blue, red, green and purple light like a fairground attraction and my head spins in time. The handful of free tickets were snatched up faster than Springsteen on Broadway when they were released and the last thing I want to do is forfeit my spot on this special after-dark, candle-lit tour celebrating more than a decade as part of the Open House New York weekend.

I manage to prop myself up on the doorway, then clomp, Frankenstein-like, across the Italian Carrara marble floor to a low balustrade overlooking the blood red, side-by-side sarcophagi – eight and a half tons each – holding our 18th president and the woman who is trying to inhabit my body. Ranger Ann is running folks through Grant’s final days, when he was tragically felled by throat cancer, chronicled twice a day in early and late edition newspapers.

Having just finished Ron Chernow’s latest biography on Grant, I am familiar with this part of the narrative. In his concluding chapter entitled “Taps,” Chernow takes us from Grant thinking he’d gotten a bum peach at the Jersey shore to his cancer diagnosis to the 24 black stallions pulling his hearse in a seven-mile procession that took five hours to reach the temporary burial site just north of where the tomb now stands.

But when Ranger Ann says that the tomb interior is an almost exact replica of Napoleon’s Parisian tomb at Les Invalides, right down to the red granite, my ears perk up. The Grants took a two-year grand tour after the presidency, before settling on Manhattan’s east side to enjoy their retirement from public life, but Les Invalides was one of the few sites they skipped.

The New York-based Grants then, unfortunately, lost all their money in risky investment scheme, forcing Grant to pen his memoir as insurance that his wife and children would enjoy financial security after his death. Mark Twain actually helped him negotiate a better book deal. Julia also becomes the first lady to pen her memoir, although publication lingers until some 75 years after her passing.

Ranger Ann goes onto say that a well-placed call, a mere five hours after Grant passed, mayor William Grace offered the widow Julia any burial site she wanted in New York. Grant’s only instruction was that he wanted his wife to be laid to rest by his side, but Chernow lists four factors that led Julia to choose New York over Arlington: “she believed it had been her husband’s preference; she could visit his tomb often; many Americans would be able to come; and – most important – she would be allowed a final resting place by his side.”


Chernow cites “local opposition” to Julia’s first choice in Central Park near the couple’s 3 East 66th Street address, but Ranger Ann adds that the Central Park site would eventually be overshadowed – literally – by one of the largest cancer centers in the country planned just across the street. “Imagine,” Ranger Ann asks us, “dying of cancer and looking out your window at a monument to that century’s most famous cancer fatality.”

Quick on his feet, Mayor Grace pivots to a spot untouched by trains or roads above Manhattan’s then northern border at 110th Street. High atop a hill with commanding views of the Hudson River below, he even tried to get the neighborhood moniker Manhattan’s Acropolis to stick. It doesn’t, but the tomb goes forward at that locale.

Grant’s sarcophagus was carved from Wisconsin red granite after his death in the summer of 1885, Julia’s a year later. Somewhere in the lag, measurements are fudged and almost two decades after her husband’s death, when Julia takes up residence in her own sarcophagus, visitors notice that her final resting place is just slightly higher than her husband’s.

Ranger Ann tells us President Grant wouldn’t have minded that difference as Julia was one of those rare birds – a first lady that was loved deeply by her husband, and constantly placed on a pedestal. The separate sarcophagi were Julia’s idea; one of only two she had for the tomb.

Ranger Ann points out a few “Scooby-Doo doors,” one of which houses the tomb’s minimal electricity, and another which leads to a spiral staircase that connects to a catwalk in the rotunda. She points out many improvements to the tomb the WPA made in the 30s. Busts of Grant’s military contemporaries now ring the sarcophagi and scenes from Grant’s military triumphs from the Battle of Vicksburg to General Lee’s surrender are memorialized on the ceiling.

The tour concludes as Ranger Ann tells us to come back and visit her during daylight hours. She points us across Riverside Drive to the Tomb’s old overlook pavilion, which used to afford visitors views of the Hudson River, but now houses the gift shop, a rangers’ station and a film on Grant. As I cross the street, I ponder the conclusion of Julia’s own memoir: “the light of his glorious fame still reaches out to me, falls upon me, and warms me.” I wonder why, then, more than a century later, Julia has decided to “warm” me.

I’m contemplating a Grant bobblehead in the gift shop when I am suddenly overwhelmed again, making a mad dash to the comfort station. As I relieve myself, I wonder if that might be it. Perhaps Julia just had to go – her only other architectural instruction on the tomb was no bathrooms.

Grant’s Tomb is open from 9am to 5pm daily at 122nd Street and Riverside Drive. Click here for more information.