- Historic Sites
Saving The Statue
After standing in New York Harbor for nearly one hundred years, this thin-skinned but sturdy lady needs a lot of attention. She’s getting it- from a crack team of French and American architects and engineers.
June/july 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 4
The body may have been modeled after Bartholdis future wife; the face was his mothers.
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.
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.”
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.