Sunday, May 6, 2012

Hidden Treasures

Walking in Riverside Park with my friend Melissa. The giant oaks were dark with rain. 

We were heading north along the path she walks with her famous dog, Esau, when we came upon Grant's Tomb at 122 St. and Riverside Drive, in Morningside Heights.

If you ever go up to Grant's Tomb, be sure to wipe the smile off your face. The mausoleaum is a somber place, with a funereal NPS ranger inside answering questions—a park ranger so humorless and gray, he looked more dead than General Grant himself.

Grant shaking hands with Lincoln

Outside the tomb, we noticed some colorful mosaic benches surrounding the plaza and walked over to take a look: they were fantastic! They reminded me of Nikki de St. Phalle's Tarot Garden in Tuscany, which was influenced by Gaudi's Park Güell. I was convinced the benches were created by an artist, but M thought school children had a hand in making them.

I had to admit they were pretty wacky, and didn't make a whole lot of sense—an evil Mickey Mouse next to a blue-eyed bull...

...a Medieval damsel with a red-headed, black Pippy Longstocking.
A slave ship? Was it history? Someone's bad dream?

Who were these people?

Nothing was written about them, no plaques or signs, so, despite not wanting to, I entered the Tomb again and asked the park ranger if he knew who had made them.

"A Spanish artist named Gawwdy," he spat, stretching out Gaudi, like he wanted to throttle him.

"The Gaudi? From Barcelona?"

"Yeah," he said, in disgust.

"But why isn't there anything written about him?" 

"The NPS never wanted the benches in the first place; they don't belong here," he grumbled.

I couldn't believe what he was saying. A world renowned artist like Gaudi, and the National Park Service had ignored him? It couldn't be. It also seemed unlikely Gaudi had actually been up here, tucked away behind Grant's Tomb. 

We went back to M's apartment and googled. With a little sleuthing we found out this: the "Rolling Benches of Grant's Tomb" were created in 1972 by a group of artists and children, led by the Chilean-born NY artist Pedro Silva and the architect Phillip Danzig, under the auspices of CITYarts. The benches were inspired by Gaudi, but poor Gaudi had nothing to do with them.

At the time, the "Rolling Benches" were the largest public art project in the nation. But the NPS thought them unworthy of the highfalutiness of Grant's Tomb, so they threatened to remove them, even prying a section lose to see how difficult it would be to chuck the whole project in the Hudson.

But the project was saved, and in 2008, Silva returned with his son, and hundreds of neighborhood volunteers, to restore the benches, with some of the original artists.

One of them, Frieda Heldman, came back in 2008 to restore the bench she created in 1972
(website: CITYarts)

And here is her bench:
Dancer Bench by Frieda Heldman

More benches:
 Melissa under archway

We had stumbled upon a hidden treasure. Even though they've been abused and ignored by the NPS, these whimsical benches are still standing, just waiting to be appreciated one day. 

 (click on photos to see as slide show)


  1. i love this, charlotte!
    what a weird guy, though, the grant's tomb guy. i saw the mosaics --i was randomly walking in the area, oddly. and, it must have been right around the time they were being rejuvenated. hidden treasure, indeed!

    1. Thanks Susan, My friend M tells me around the time of the building of Grant's Tomb, this area was the countryside and people would come up from the nether regions of the city to breath fresh air. And it still has that odd displacement. Finding these were totally unexpected!