Saving The Statue

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AT A TABLE IN a cozy Chinese restaurant on the Left Bank of Paris, half a dozen men argue loudly about the Statue of Liberty. Several argue in French, several argue in English, and one argues in both languages while attempting simultaneous translation of everyone else’s remarks. The question at issue: Why wasn’t the statue built the way Gustave Eiffel designed it?

 
 

EIFFEL, THE GREATEST French engineer of the nineteenth century, devised an ingenious structure to hold up the Statue of Liberty several years before beginning work on his famous tower. But the structure was clumsily modified by the time the statue was erected in New York Harbor. The change shifted the internal support for the upraised right arm, which holds the torch, eighteen inches off to the side and slightly forward. The weakened connection has needed repairs over the years and needs them again now.

 
Its structure was clumsily modified before the statue was erected in New York Harbor.

Pierre Tissier, a bearded French engineer in his sixties, maintains that Eiffel cannot possibly be responsible. “C’est un imbroglio,” he says; Eiffel was a perfectionist. Robert Landsman, an architect with the large New York firm of Swanke Hayden Connell, asserts that the shoulder was most likely hurriedly modified after the statue’s copper sheath was flattened slightly during shipment from France. Philippe Grandjean, a young French architect, counters that he has photographs indicating that the skeleton was already redesigned before the skin began to go on in New York, so the change must have happened in Paris. Thierry Despont, another French architect, suggests that Eiffel was not terribly interested in the project, and that even if his structure was altered in Paris, he would have paid no attention. Despont adds that he thinks Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor who designed the statue itself, ordered the change to make his masterpiece look better. The placement of the head was also shifted some two feet, yet the statue looks perfectly proportioned from every angle.

Ultimately, the men around the table reach a consensus over their Burgundy and brochettes vietnamiennes : Whatever happened, Eiffel did not do it, and he would not have done it that way. After lunch, they return to their meeting place, in a small office on the rue Gandon, and continue a discussion of the real problem that has brought them together: how to repair that shoulder. They are members of the Franco-American team planning the $29-million restoration and renovation of the statue, to be completed in time for the centennial of Liberty’s inauguration, October 28, 1986. By that date, if all goes according to schedule, Liberty will hold aloft a brand new torch; her shoulder will contain a stronger, healthier joint; thousands of the structural members that line her insides will have been replaced; and the surface of her skin facing inward will have the natural copper color of a new penny. A dramatic space will have been opened up in her pedestal; it will contain a double-deck, clear-walled, hydraulic elevator. All her stairs will have been repaired or replaced, and new interior viewing platforms will have been installed.

OUTSIDE, HER SKIN , which is 3/32 inch thick, will get some very gentle cleaning. Although she should end up much healthier than now, from without she will look almost exactly the same. The physical work began this winter with the erection of scaffolding; painstaking planning still goes on.

This effort to restore and renovate the Statue of Liberty, which has been in preparation for several years, has much in common with the effort that first conceived the statue, built it, and brought it to New York. Both began with a discussion between two Frenchmen seeking to make a gesture of goodwill. Both gained momentum with the formation of a private French-American committee to raise funds without the help of either government. Both encountered unique technical problems and both, thanks to the coordinated efforts of experts on each side of the Atlantic, found solutions to those problems by combining modern technology with traditional craftsmanship.

If anything, the restoration is the more delicate undertaking, for the statue has grown into one of this nation’s most visible, central icons. “It’s such an important symbol,” says chief architect Philippe Grandjean. “We must be so careful. We must love, in fact, the lady. And the way we’ve done it, I feel very comfortable.”