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Ulysses S. Grant’s 1849 Home in Detroit May Be Restored

The house he rented as a young officer is now boarded up and full of trash on the site of the former Michigan state fairgrounds

Ulysses Simpson Grant, Oil on canvas by Thomas Le Clear (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum; gift of Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., 1921)
smithsonian.com

Ulysses S. Grant, the victorious commanding general of the Union Army and the 18th president of the United States isn’t hurting for monuments. The cabin where he was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, is a historic site, his tomb in New York is North America’s largest mausoleum, his post-war home in Galena, Illinois, is a major tourist attraction, and the home where he lived before the war in St. Louis is a National Historic Site. That’s not to mention the schools, parks and buildings named after him or the countless busts, statues and other monuments erected in his honor.

But it turns out there’s one piece of major Grant-abilia that isn't so celebrated. Louis Aguilar at The Detroit News reports that the home Grant briefly shared with his wife while stationed in Detroit as a young officer has fallen into disrepair. If funding can be found, however, the state of Michigan hopes to refurbish the property and move it from the former Michigan State Fairgrounds to a more fitting location.

Aguilar reports that the home dates back to 1836 or 1837 and is one of the oldest structures in Detroit. When Grant occupied the building, it was centrally located on 253 E. Fort Street. In 1936, it was scheduled for demolition, but the Michigan Mutual Liability Company saved the building by purchasing it as a gift for the fairgrounds. In 1958, the historic home was moved to its current spot on the grounds, where it was opened up for visitors.

But over time, people lost interest in the building, and it was shuttered and used for storage. In 2010, the fairgrounds closed but the dilapidated house remained. Today it's windows are covered with plywood, the inside is full of trash from squatters and an old waterbed sits in one of the bedrooms.

One effort to save the home and move it to the Fort Wayne historic site in the city fell through. Another plan, in 2015, to move the house to Detroit Edison Public School Academy’s campus also didn't happen. Now, the fairgrounds are being sold, with the City of Detroit buying a large section and Magic Johnson’s development company also taking a piece. That has made the issue of Grant’s house more urgent. Currently, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is proposing to move it to the East Market area to use as an education center.

Grant’s Detroit sojourn is not a critical period in his life. In his two-volume memoir, his brief stay in Detroit takes up about a page. He was stationed there as a young army officer in early 1849, Jack Lessenberry at Michigan Radio reports. In April of that year, he wrote to his then-new wife Julia Dent to tell her about the cute two-story clapboard house he had rented, which he said had a fine garden and grapevines. She came to live with him there and the two threw a successful ball.

When Dent became pregnant soon after, she decided to move away from the rough frontier city back to the comfort of St. Louis. Grant, who became lonely on his own over the long winter that followed, took to drinking heavily. At some point, though, he realized his drinking was becoming a problem and made a pledge to his pastor that he would abstain from alcohol. That didn’t last. In 1854, stationed at the remote Fort Humboldt in California, he reported for duty drunk and had to sign a letter of resignation rather than face a court-martial. He would rejoin the army at the start of the Civil War, eventually working his way up the chain of command and into the history books.

Though his stay in Detroit was little more than a footnote in his life, Jack Dempsey, the executive director of the Michigan History Foundation, tells Lessenberry writes that Detroiters ought to honor him anyway. “General Grant saved the nation and President Grant fought to protect the rights of the newly freed. Can’t today’s Michiganders save and protect and cherish [his home]?” he says.

Whether the preservationists will prevail will likely be determined later this month when Aguilar reports a final decision on the property is expected. Whatever happens with the home, for what it's worth, we think Grant may have enjoyed the addition of the waterbed.

Grant Home Illo
(Wikimedia Commons)
About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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