Places that Matter

Mosaic Benches at Grant's Tomb

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Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Courtesy of CITYarts
Courtesy of CITYarts
Courtesy of CITYarts
Colorful community art project
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By Breanne Scanlon

National history and public art intersect at the General Grant National Memorial in Riverside Park in the form of seventeen mosaic benches. The colorful benches wrap around the exterior of the building, providing a stark contrast to the austere mausoleum. Since their creation in 1972, the benches and their relation to Grant's Tomb have been flashpoints for debate about the role and value of public art.

After serving as President of the United States from 1869 to 1877, Ulysses S. Grant retired to New York City. He died of throat cancer in 1885, and the General Grant National Memorial, where he and his wife, Julia Dent Grant, are buried, was dedicated in 1897 at 122nd Street at Riverside Drive. In 1972, the National Park Service (NPS) and CITYarts, a local arts organization, jointly funded the creation of seventeen continuous mosaic benches around the General Grant National Memorial, commonly known as the Grant's Tomb Mosaic Bench. The benches were produced by CITYarts, created by professional artists and community volunteers of all ages, and led by artist Pedro Silva.

Founded in 1968, CITYarts' mission focuses on connecting the children and youth of New York with professional artists to create public works of art that address civic and social issues. Pedro Silva, a Chilean artist living in New York City, was chosen by CITYarts to lead the mosaic project, which involved many hundreds of community volunteers and commemorated the centennial anniversary of the opening of Yellowstone Park, the first National Park, during Grant's presidency. The NPS and CITYarts hoped that a public arts project would not only bring together diverse members of the Morningside Heights neighborhood, but also put a stop to graffiti and vandalism at Grant's Tomb. A Parks Service official later commented that, "The thing to do at Grant's Tomb was not to build a high fence and hire extra guards, but rather to give the community up there pride of ownership of the site."

Through intensive workshops, the community came up with images and ideas that were incorporated into the benches, which were inspired by the style of Antonio Gaudi, a Spanish sculptor and architect. Between 1972 and 1974, Silva, six professional artists, and large numbers of volunteers constructed the benches from iron rods, wire mesh, and poured concrete. They laid mosaic tiles over the framework. The free-form benches extend for more than 350 ft. around the sides and back of the memorial, and are set back about 25 ft. from the building. Silva and the volunteers created a variety of mosaic designs, including a portrait of General Grant, depictions of his travels and accomplishments, and what one writer called an "energetic medley" of other images, including an elephant in a jungle, a New York taxicab, bouquets of flowers, and a flooding fire hydrant.