Saving The Statue


The armature and saddles were in bad shape. Most of the insulation between copper and iron has worn away, permitting an electrolytic reaction between the metals that has rusted much of the iron. Exfoliating rust under the saddles has pulled roughly a third of them out of the statue’s skin. Another third of the saddles are in varying states of corrosion, and it became clear that, to be safe, all of them would have to be replaced.

THE SKIN ITSELF turned out to be in excellent condition overall- the patina, though stained in places, had held up very well and protected the copper against the elements. Except in the torch area, only about 2 square feet of a surface of 10,000 square feet will have to be replaced (all new exterior copper will be prepatinized in an acid bath). The inwardfacing surface of the skin, however, has had seven coats of paint, including a layer of vinyl lipstick-proof paint applied in the 1950s, when lipstick was the popular medium for graffiti. That will all be removed.

The most deteriorated part of the statue turned out to be the most exposed part, the torch. It was at “definite risk of structural failure”- that is, falling off. The National Park Service was advised not to let more than two maintenance men up into it at a time, and only when the wind was under twenty miles per hour.

The statue’s central structure was generally holding up well. The shoulder area, while not about to give way, needed reinforcement or rebuilding before it weakened further. That part of the structure had been imperfect ever since its mysterious reworking during construction. Moreover, some guy rods and tie rods attached to the bottom of the pylon and its base inside the pedestal seemed not to function under normal conditions, but this was a lesser concern and could easily be corrected.

While analyzing the statue’s physical state, the team also looked at its capacity to handle visitors, whose numbers had increased 70 percent in the last ten years. The statue, which now has as many as 8,500 visitors a day, was not designed to be entered by the public and has never been a pleasant place for crowds. There is often a forty-five-minute wait for the elevator to the top of the pedestal. The elevator debouches into a confined area where, says Robert Landsman: “You get stairs going up, stairs coming down, two doorways off to the sides, people waiting to go into the elevator. Confusion.” Then there is often another long wait to begin the walk up the two-foot-wide helical stairs to the crown.


Inside the statue proper, temperatures sometimes reach 120 degrees and carbon dioxide levels are often unhealthy. And there is little to see from those helical stairs: bright lights shine out onto a protective screen surrounding the pylon, creating a scrim that makes it difficult to get much of a look at the statue’s inside. And the railing on the stairs is worn-out and sharp-edged.

The French-American Committee released a report by the architects and engineers on July 14, 1983, detailing all the problems they had identified and offering initial proposals for restoration. Since then more corroborative tests have been run and the proposals have been improved and refined. Figuring out how to treat the statue’s various ills once they are diagnosed has been the “fun of this project,” says Thierry Despont. “If there were ever only one solution it would be boring. The interesting part is the arguments and the discussions.”

The architects and engineers have “shared a kind of romantic enthusiasm,” Despont says.

THE TEAM members’ range of backgrounds has guaranteed a diversity of approaches, says Despont, and there have been some very lively discussions. “On the one extreme,” he points out, “you have someone like Moutard, who is really the old-style, Old World master craftsman. It’s very precious. He is quiet and he knows his craft. He can look at the statue and feel what’s wrong with it. He can’t necessarily explain it, but he knows what’s wrong and knows how to repair it. And then on the other extreme you have Swanke Hayden Connell, which is one of the largest architectural firms in this country and is geared to the production of large office buildings. They’ve done a lot of restoration work, but they’re more known for their competence and efficiency at producing things on time. The individuals on the project have all shared a kind of romantic enthusiasm for it, and that has gotten us over all discrepancies in communicating and arguing points so far.”

Blaine Cliver, overseeing the renovation all along, has tried to make sure that every bit of the work follows government standards for the restoration of national monuments, but admits that “as with most standards, they’re not really specific.” In general, he says, the guidelines tend to be conservative. “We’re doing history work,” he says. If an original design “isn’t sound in the long term, then we’ll change it.” An advisory committee of six prominent architects who are experts in restoration—its chairman is the Honorable George M. White, who holds the title of Architect of the Capitol—has also reviewed every architectural and engineering decision.