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State Journal-Register, The (Springfield, IL)

LAWMAKERS: FIX GRANT'S TOMB OR BRING IT HERE

March 31, 1994
Section: LOCAL
Edition: M1,M2
Page: 1
DAVID HOWELL STAFF WRITER

 

Groucho Marx used to ask game show contestants who was buried in Grant's Tomb, but Illinois lawmakers today are asking: Who's taking care of Grant's Tomb? Although he's been dead for 109 years, former Galena resident Ulysses S. Grant has suddenly become a hot political topic.

 

Grant, the Civil War general and the 18th president, is buried in a New York City park. But the once-beautiful General Grant National Memorial, which was built at a cost of $600,000 in 1897, is now a vandalized hangout for drug users and the homeless.

 

And two Illinois lawmakers are determined to do something about it.

 

State Sen. Judy Baar Topinka, R-Riverside, and state Rep. Ron Lawfer, R-Stockton, are campaigning to get the tomb returned to its former glory.

 

"Either the National Park Service has to fix (the tomb) up, or they should let us take him home and bury him in a proper and respectful way," Topinka said.

 

A joint resolution sponsored by Topinka, the Republican candidate for state treasurer, and Lawfer was passed Wednesday by the Senate Executive Committee. The resolution asks the National Park Serviceto repair Grant's Tomb -- or allow it to be moved to Illinois.

 

The 150-foot-high granite memorial is in uptown Manhattan's Riverside Park, overlooking the Hudson River.

 

Topinka estimates that the "major mess" would cost about $2 million to repair. She said Civil War groups and private foundations in Illinois would probably help raise the money if the tomb were moved to Illinois.

 

"He would be better off anywhere than New York," Topinka said of Grant. "But my argument is not with New York; it's with the National Park Service."

 

Galena toy store owner Paul LeGreco told lawmakers the memorial should be treated with respect. LeGreco, who has been doing Grant impersonations for 20 years, showed up at the hearing in his Grant garb.

 

"I believe we should maintain a fitting tribute to Ulysses S. Grant," said LeGreco, 46. "If it can't be done in New York, it should be done in Illinois."

 

The federal government is working to repair the tomb, and the vandalism reports are exaggerated, said Douglas Cuillard, deputy superintendent of Manhattan sites for the National Park Service.

 

The main problems are graffiti, a leaking dome, humidity inside the tomb and the age of the building, Cuillard said.

 

"We say categorically that we will take care of the site and do a better job now that it's a priority," Cuillard said. "A $400,000 project is already under way to repair the dome."

 

The park service would like to implement 24-hour security for the tomb, but the administrative expenses, two full-time park rangers and a vehicle would cost about $250,000 a year, Cuillard said.

 

"It doesn't make any sense" to move the tomb to Illinois, Cuillard maintained. "There are strong reasons why the Grants are buried here, and we intend to keep them here."

 

Grant died of cancer at Mount McGregor, N.Y., in 1885, just four days after he had finished writing his memoirs, which brought in enough money to lift his family out of debt.

 

President Clinton's 1995 budget allots $450,000 per year for improved operations at the site, said Edie Shean-Hammond, chief of the National Park Service's north-east region.

 

The plight of Grant's Tomb was first brought to public attention by Columbia University senior Frank Scaturro last November.

 

Scaturro, 21, was a volunteer tour guide at the site when he blew the whistle on its disrepair. He reportedly lost his job with the park service because he informed the media of the tomb's dilapidation -- an apparent policy violation. He now works with a private group to lobby for renovation of the site.

 

Cuillard said he could not comment on Scaturro's case, but added, "People are not fired for whistleblowing."

 

Although Grant's Tomb was New York's biggest tourist attraction in the early 1900s, it now attracts few visitors compared with other Big Apple sites, Cuillard said.

 

As such, New Yorkers and most other Americans don't know a whole lot about the man elected president in 1868 and re-elected in 1872. "Grant's Tomb is probably better known to New Yorkers as the butt of one of Groucho Marx's 1950s game show jokes," said David Egner, Gov. Mario Cuomo's press officer.

 

On his show, "You Bet Your Life," "Marx would frequently ask lousy contestants, `Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?' And sometimes they got it wrong," Egner said.

 


The words "love boogie" and other graffiti can be seen on the side of Grant's Tomb in this file photograph. Witnesses sign up for the opportunity to testify before the Senate Executive Committee. The committee considered bills, constitutional amendments and resolutions on a number of issues Wednesday.



All content 1994- State Journal-Register, The (Springfield, IL) and may not be republished without permission.