My brother and I had so much fun visiting the memorial to assassinated President Garfield in Cleveland’s Lakeview Cemetery, that I almost forgot it was a tomb. My niece and nephew opted to stay in the car and look at their phones, but somehow missed the text message I sent telling them that they were missing out. Their loss! The Garfield Memorial is definitely worth getting out of the car for.
The Memorial is impressive, surprisingly impressive for a man who was only in office for 200 days. But, this is Ohio and President Garfield grew up just down the road. The memorial stands nearly two hundred feet tall, and is constructed from Berea Sandstone. Stone panels depicting different scenes of Garfield’s life line the sides, and gargoyles protect the corners. I noticed one panel that illustrated Garfield on his death bed, or maybe lying in state. My brother liked the one of Garfield during the Civil War. The figures on the panels are life-size – everything about this building is immense.
The interior is a wash of red and gold. A larger than life marble statue of the President stands in the center of the rotunda. Elaborate tile mosaics cover the floors. Gold mosaics cover the walls and ceilings. The effect is almost that of the iconography of a Russian Orthodox church.
A sign indicated that the crypt and washrooms were downstairs, and another reminded us to refrain from playing Pokemon Go. “Pokemon Go was old last year,” my nephew told us afterword. My brother and I opted to climb up the stairs to get a better view of the mosaics.
The stairs took us to a balcony overlooking the cemetery, the city skyline and Lake Erie beyond that. The field stone that paved the balcony shifted under my feet as I walked, making me feel like I had a precarious perch on the massive building. After some selfies and taking in the view (John D. Rockefeller is buried nearby, but I forgot about that until after we left), we took another staircase down to look at the mosaics.
About this time I texted my niece and nephew, telling them to get out of the car and to come join in the fun. They must have been in a convenient dead zone because there was no reply.
The second staircase threw me off, and I was disoriented, insisting that there was a second balcony up there that we had missed. I had walked the full circle of the dome and didn’t realize it. My brother helpfully pointed out the compass on the walls of the dome. We both took pictures of North, and afterwards I couldn’t remember if there was ever a South, East or West in the mosaics.
(Another detail I missed was that the fourteen stained glass windows depict one of the the thirteen original colonies, plus Ohio.)
By then we were headed down to the washrooms and crypt. The casket of the President and his wife, Lucretia are on display. It feels as though the President is still lying in state. His casket is draped in the American flag. The exposed casket is interesting. John and John Quincy Adams are interred in a crypt that you can visit, but their caskets are enclosed in larger granite tombs. These caskets were behind bars, and as we walked 360 degrees around them, we noticed two urns at the head of the caskets. I now know that these urns hold the ashes of the Garfields’ daughter Molly and her husband, but at the time we were very confused. “Do you think they are in the urns?” my brother asked. “And if not them, who is?”
After viewing the caskets, my brother and I visited the advertised washrooms. When I came out, my brother was looking at a glass case. Artifacts from the President’s funeral, including dried petals from a wreath sent by Queen Victoria were on display.
I started thinking of Garfield’s impact when I saw the wreath from Queen Victoria. While I couldn’t name anything accomplishments from Garfield’s Presidency, my recent visit to John F Kennedy’s Birthplace reminded me that the death of the President is a big deal. The rangers there showed us pictures of the crowds that packed the street in front of his birthplace. Over 100,000 people viewed President Garfield’s casket as he lay in state. As Garfield lingered and deteriorated, newspapers kept the nation informed of his health. The murder of Abraham Lincoln occurred a short sixteen years before. It must have felt like the country was still unstable, especially so soon after the Civil War. During my visit to the James A. Garfield National Historic Site the next morning, I learned of Garfield’s twenty year service in Congress, his military service and a little of his character. The Garfield Memorial is a fitting tribute to an accomplished man, whose life and service to the country was cut short.