Ulysses S. Grant Battles St. John The Divine, Or, I Go Uptown


Yesterday I did two things I rarely do: I went uptown, and I went to a museum. To generalize, à la Carrie Bradshaw, there are certain New Yorkers who keep abreast of cultural goings-on, who go to gallery openings for reasons other than free wine and breathlessly follow the progression of and revolving doors at the Whitney Biennial. And then there are the rest of us, who only go to any of the above when visitors are in town.

“So I’m thinking we start at the Met, then the City Museum of New York, then St. John the Divine, and then Grant’s Tomb…” he trailed off at my falling face. It was such a gorgeous day, after all, almost shirtsleeves weather, finally spring.
“Maybe not the Met,” I said, as we stood on its wide cream steps. “It’s so huge; it deserves its own day.”
So we didn’t; we took off through the hills and greens of upper Central Park, stopping to sit on the Copywriter’s bench and watch the tail end of a hockey game.


I had never been to the City Museum before, but oh.my.god. Pictures of New Yorkers and their city fascinate me—I love looking at the clothes of course, and at their hairstyles and expressions, but also at shop signs, billboards, dance halls, and restaurant interiors. Right now the museum has an exhibition of photos from Look Magazine, all of prominent entertainers and businessmen and even wrestlers, and right across the hall, Jacob Riis’ slum-dwellers jostle elbows with the Byron Company’s pompadoured 400. One room over are a series of cutaways of upper-crust New York apartments through the ages—nteresting enough though the first one, of a prosperous Dutch shipping family in the early 1600’s, is marred by awkward mannequins.

Much more fun, if somewhat less educational is the Charles Adams exhibit, a hodgepodge of the cartoonist/Adam’s Family creator’s original sketches, cartoons, and New Yorker covers. There’s also an exhibition of Joel Meyerowitz’s photographs of the city’s parks, from stark, pebbley Conference House Park in Staten Island to the verdant, aptly named Forest Park in Queens.

The photographs are all taken at optimal seasons and times of day—autumn afternoon for the maple bowing over the Bronx River, spring at dawn for the foggy river bank in High Rock Park Preserve. There are even some winter shots, but at this point in the year, no offense, they are frigid and unwelcoming.
All that looking at pictures of parks got both of us eager for the real thing, so we cut through the park again on the way to St. John the Divine. The cathedral’s immense swell loomed at us from its hilltop perch long before we reached its unfinished porticoes.

Anything started in 1892 and still not finished ought to be huge and ornate, and St. John’s is certainly both. You walk in, after a few minutes gaping at the giraffe/satan’s head/lobster claw peace statue, and there’s so much space and height and endless rows of 30-foot high stained glass windows receding to a darkened apse. You reach that and realize that oh, there’s another side room, all light, white marble, and then another and a third, forth, fifth—this one an octagon. By the time you finally tumble out, you’ve covered an area equivalent to a small town (bigger, I think, than my small town).

What do you do post-tumble? If you’re us, you keep going, heading northwest until you reach 122th and Riverside Drive, where lies the sturdy, square resting place of one of our greatest generals (and less great presidents). I don’t know how much say Grant had in the design of his tomb, but it is one of the most masculine buildings I’ve ever seen, just a simple limestone block with a modest dome, and, inside, the twin obsidian caskets of Grant and the missus, and a whole lot of flags. Simple and striking and it won’t take ten minutes, after which you can spend as long as you like basking on the wide steps and watching the scraping efforts of nascent skateboarders.

After, if you’re hungry, as we were, the stretch of Broadway between Barnard and Columbia is filled with ethnic and domestic cheap-eats. Craving shwarma, we chose to Amir’s Falafel, but I wouldn’t recommend—think food-cart pita, bland, over-cooked lamb, and skimpy pickled cabbage. The Cuban place next door to Amir’s was filled with what seemed to be reasonably content patrons, and if not, there’s always Pinkberry.

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2 Responses to “Ulysses S. Grant Battles St. John The Divine, Or, I Go Uptown”

  1. John Says:

    OK so…
    Those “little rooms” around the Cathedral Church (not a cathedral) are the chapels and the baptismal (the octagon one).
    And dear General Grant’s tomb does not have a tiny dome. It is in fact an oversized double dome (one inside another with the inner hollowed-out), which can be noticed quite easily if one were to look up once inside. The dome only looks small due to the columns surrounding the primary dome. Notice from the picture that the actual dome structure adds more than another story to the height of the building. And I recommend more than 10 mins.

  2. Leonie Says:

    Pompadours predate the 400 by at least a century, sweetie-pie. Did you mean “pomaded?”
    Would have loved to have accompanied you both.

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