Saving The Statue

The body may have been modeled after Bartholdis future wife; the face was his mothers.

SOME IMPORTANT technical aspects of the statue s early history— such as the matter of the right shoulder —remain mysteries, but in general the story is well documented. The statue’s genesis began, according to Bartholdi, at a dinner party in 1865 at the home of Edouard de Laboulaye, a prominent French historian, admirer of America, and leader of the Republican opposition under Napoleon III. De Laboulaye suggested the erection of a colossal monument to Independence, to be organized jointly by France and America, and the concept immediately caught the imagination of the young Alsatian sculptor, who liked the idea both politically and artistically—he had traveled to Egypt in the 185Os and been deeply impressed by the colossal sculptures there.

No immediate action was taken on de Laboulaye’s proposal, however. In the meantime Bartholdi met Ismail Pasha, the khédive of Egypt, and in 1867 proposed the construction of an enormous lighthouse to stand at the entrance to the Suez Canal, which would be completed two years later. Bartholdi did sketches for the lighthouse that gave it the form of an enormous human figure with a torch in its upraised hand. But Ismail Pasha was never won over, and by 1869 the idea was dropped.

In 1871, Bartholdi set sail for America armed with letters of introduction from de Laboulaye, hoping to stimulate interest in a great statue to be erected during the centennial, 1876, in honor of the “ancient friendship of France and the United States.” He wrote to de Laboulaye before he left: “I will try to glorify the Republic and Liberty over there, in the hope that someday I will find it again here. …” His proposal was well received, and he found an ideal site for the statue: Bedloe’s Island, in New York Harbor, formerly a quarantine station, a refuge for Tories, an ordnance depot, a garrison, a recruiting post, and today renamed Liberty Island.

In 1875, with moderate Republicans triumphant in France, the project was publically announced, and the Union Franco-Américaine was formed to raise funds. It soon became clear, however, that the statue would not be ready in time for the centennial.

THE STATUE first took shape as a clay miniature four feet tall. The model for the body may have been Bartholdi’s future wife; the face, he admitted, was his mother’s. Mme Bartholdi, a strong-willed widow, had raised her sons alone in Paris but had returned to the family’s hometown of Colmar by the 1870s. Colmar and the rest of Alsace had been ceded to the Germans at the end of the Franco Prussian War, in 1871, and Bartholdi was undoubtedly moved by the irony of using the face of his mother, whose homeland had been usurped, on his statue of Liberty.

Starting with the four-foot-tall model, the statue was enlarged several times,first to a plaster model 9.4 feet tall—one-sixteenth of the final size of the statue—then to one-quarter size, and finally to full-size pieces. Each time, as many as nine thousand measurements had to be made to proportionately increase the statue’s dimensions. And each time, Bartholdi made changes in the finished plaster model to adjust to the new scale. This work was done at the Parisian firm of Gaget, Gauthier & Cie, and according to a dubious popular etymology to which every member of the restoration team seems to subscribe, miniatures of the statue sold to raise money became known as Gagets and, in this country, gave birth to the word “gadget.”

NEXT THE PLASTER form was reproduced as a skin of copper sheets. Hammered copper had become popular in the nineteenth century as a material for large-scale art and architectural works. It was at once light, workable, and relatively inexpensive—hammering made it both thinner and more rigid than any cast metal. In the Gaget, Gauthier studios, latticed wooden molds were built to conform to each full-scale plaster piece. On these molds, over three hundred sheets of copper 3/32 inch thick were hammered into shape, and further hammering was done afterward to achieve the correct detailing.

How was this copper shell 151 feet tall and barely 1/10 inch thick to stand up to the winds of New York Harbor? Liberty’s first engineer, Eugéne Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, proposed a ponderous scheme depending entirely on mass for stability. An architect whose expertise lay in medieval architecture and restoration, he envisioned the statue filled with compartments of sand that could be individually opened and emptied to allow workers to get around in case repairs were needed.


VIOLLET-LE-DUC died in 1879 before his system could be implemented, and he was replaced by Gustave Eiffel, who at forty-seven had made a name for himself as the developer of numerous technological innovations that allowed him to build spectacularly long, high railroad bridges using great, sweeping arches and tall iron pylons. His plan for the statue was the antithesis of Violletle-Duc’s.