Poor James Garfield: One of the most capable people ever elected president, he was shot in July 1881, just four months into his term, by a disgruntled office-seeker, then died agonizingly 11 weeks later, shoved into the grave by incompetent medical care.
Born in a real-live log cabin, Garfield worked his way up from nothing to become a university president, a highly regard Union general, and a successful member of Congress before unexpectedly winning the 1880 Republican nomination.
Garfield’s assassination sanctified him, and ensured his place in the pantheon of heroes of Ohio. In the late 1880s, Ohioans helped raise $135,000 to build this stunning memorial to him in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery. A stone’s throw from the grave of John D. Rockefeller, the memorial tower features a 12-foot tall statue of the majestically bearded Garfield, along with 14 stained glass windows and murals, for each of the 13 original colonies, plus Ohio. It is also the only memorial that keeps the dead president on full display.
Garfield and his wife Lucretia Garfield are interred in the crypt, and you can also climb the tower to a balcony with expansive views of Cleveland and Lake Erie. The most curious part of the memorial is just above the door to the tower: A mural depicting the moment of Garfield’s assassination.
Dedicated in 1890, the memorial is a two story, tower-like building built in a number of Gothic and Classical styles. In addition to the elaborate architectural flourishes, the exterior of the building tells the former president’s life story via five terra cotta panels reliefs featuring over 110 life-size figures. The interior of the building features stained-glass features, mosaics, and an oversized statue of the late politician. If visitors tire of viewing caskets, the observations deck also offers terrific views of the surrounding city.
After serving only 200 days as president, Garfield nonetheless ended up with one of the most elaborate and grandiose memorials of any of America’s leaders. The James A. Garfield Memorial stands as proof that it’s not how long you spend in the White House, it’s what you do while you there.