In 1865, as the American Civil War was ending, two Frenchmen sat down to dinner one evening in Paris. The host was author Edouard de Laboulaye, who had written numerous books about the United States. His guest was artist/sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. Both men admired the United States, which had fought two long and costly wars against their-then mutual enemy—Great Britain, today’s ally—to first secure and then resecure its independence.
Britain had also secretly sided with the Confederate States of America against the USA. Moreover, Britain had been France’s traditional enemy since the days of the Norman Conquest of 1066 and St. Joan of Arc.
The two countries—France and America—identified with each other through the medium of their twins revolutions of 1789 and 1776, and it was a young French officer, the Marquis de Lafayette, who’d become an American national hero as an aide to the Commander-in-Chief of the American struggle, General and later first President of the United States George Washington.
At the time of their dinner, France herself was still being ruled by a Bonapartist dictator, Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, from whom the famous Louisiana Purchase had been made by American President Thomas Jefferson in 1803, 200 years ago.
The dinner host suggested to the artist that a monument be constructed in the United States “By united effort as if it were the common effort of both nations,” and the concept immediately excited the imagination of his guest the artist, who was already well-known in Europe for his monumental sculptures. The ultimate goal of the two men was to celebrate the idea of “Liberty, Fraternity and Equality” in a world still dominated by Hohenzollern kings (later Kaisers, or Emperors), Habsburg monarchs, the House of Savoy in Italy and Imperial Shoguns in faraway Japan.
Thus, the design was to reflect the success of the American republic as a shining example for the rest of the world as to what could be attained by freedom-loving peoples.
In 1875, Bartholdi situated a broken chain at the Statue’s feet to symbolize that the embryonic United States had wrenched itself free from England’s yoke. In her left arm the artist placed a tablet with the July 4, 1776 date of the Declaration of Independence that launched the great American experiment in self-rule and democracy, the founding of a republic wherein the people govern themselves.
In Liberty’s right hand, the artist placed a burning torch and put upon her brow a crown with seven rays. It was Bartholdi’s belief and fervent hope that the American credo of individual human worth and dignity would spread across the globe’s seven continents and truly light up the world with both peace and freedom.
The artist initially made a four-foot tall clay model to show Laboulaye and his friends, all of whom promised to raise money to finance construction of the Statue if the artist would build it. After a series of six more model designs—including the face of his mother, Charlotte Bartholdi—the sculptor decided that at last he had his Liberty. Next came the steady enlargement of the model through a second series of models, from nine to 36 feet tall.
The final model—in plaster—was 151 feet tall, built in sections, since no Parisian
studio was high enough to contain the fully-assembled figure. The plaster sections were followed by wooden forms that were shaped to fit exactly the previous parts, and then huge, flat copper pieces were placed inside the wooden forms and hammered into the rounded, smooth curves and lineage of the Statue’s elegant form.
Working through a lottery system to raise money to pay his workers, Bartholdi finished the Statue of Liberty in 1881, 16 years after he first conceptualized the design and 11 years after actual construction had started. The Americans would now have to provide the base upon which his artwork would ultimately rest for the next century and beyond, but nothing had been done when, during the Centennial of the American Revolution in 1876, he sent the completed right hand with torch to the International Exhibition in Philadelphia, both to raise funds and gain public awareness.
It was 30 feet tall. A finger was taller than the average person—and a single fingernail was more than a foot across! If this was the scale of the hand, people theorized, then the finished Statue would be huge, indeed; 900,000 patrons paid fifty cents to climb the stairs up to the balcony surrounding the torch, and thus $ 450,000 was raised to help pay for the future Statue.
Two years later, Liberty’s finished head was exhibited at the Paris World’s Fair of 1878. Famous French engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, a bridge designer whose later achievement—the Tower named for him in Paris that is still known worldwide today—
designed a special skeleton to brace the Statue of Liberty against being blown down by strong winds in its predestined future home—New York Harbor.
Its principal support was a core tower constructed of four thick, vertical iron beams, all held together by horizontal and diagonal iron bars. There were also hundreds of other iron bars branching out from the tower in all directions attached to a network of steel ‘ribs’ that curved and bent to follow the contour of the Statue’s inner surface. These were then riveted to the interior of the Statue’s copper ‘skin.’ In this fashion, the thin outer skin wouldn’t be supporting its own weight, but would be suspended like a curtain from the framework skeleton.
It had two main commendable features: it was both strong and simultaneously provided the overall structure with some ‘give,’ and was thus flexible enough to allow Liberty to twist and sway a bit in the strong winds prevalent in the harbor. In addition, when the hot summer sun beat down on Liberty, some pieces would heat up and then expand more than others. Eiffel’s structure permitted the various parts of Liberty to expand and contract separately without cracking the Statue or splitting the joints.
In 1883, Bartholdi and his work crew began the final work of putting the completed parts of the finished Statue together on a platform outside his warehouse. The large pieces of the copper skin were then riveted to skeletal iron-and-steel frame, and the project was completed by the end of that year. In America, however, there was as yet no place for the Statue of Liberty to stand upon, torch and tablet in hand, alas.
True, the Congress of the United States had voted to set aside Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor for the site, and American architect Richard Morris Hunt had designed a pedestal for the Statue from the repaired old star-shaped fort on the island as the base, but in 1883 work on it had not even begun, much less been finished.
Work started the following year, but then suddenly stopped as funds for it dried up. The problem was that the nation at-large saw the Statue as New York’s alone, not as a gift to every American citizen personally from the Republic of France (Napoleon III having gone into exile after the loss of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.)
As the Statue was taken apart and crated for shipment in 214 boxes in Paris, New York newspaper owner Joseph Pulitzer of The World began a fundraising campaign through his publication asking for any and all donations from the American people enmasse, promising to print the names of all who gave.
In five months in this manner, $ 100,000 had been raised, and thus, by August, 1885, there was enough money on hand to complete construction of the pedestal.
As the 214 crates sat astride Bedloe’s Island, workmen framed and poured 27 tons of concrete into the base, and the pedestal was done by April, 1886. In honor of all the ordinary citizens who’d sent small donations, the workers mixed pennies, nickels and dimes into the wet mortar used to lay the last stone in the pedestal. When it was completed, the Statue’s face was covered with a huge French tricolor flag of red, white and blue to be removed during the dedication ceremony on Oct. 28, 1886.
Thousands of cheering New Yorkers both on land and in boats watched as a happy Bartholdi and former New York Governor, now President of the United States Grover Cleveland, arrived for the ceremony on a cold, wet day. New York Senator William Evart delivered the dedication speech and a 21-gun salute was fired in Liberty’s honor.
A poem written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus quickly became associated with the enormous Statue that would forever be associated with America:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Ever afterward, for millions of immigrants coming to America from all over the world, the Statue of Liberty would be their first glimpse of the New World, as depicted in the epic film The Godfather Part II in 1974, on their way to being processed at nearby Ellis Island in the same harbor.
In 1903, a bronze plaque emblazoned with Ms. Lazarus’ poem was affixed to the base of the Statue, two decades after it was first written. The US War Department was placed in charge of Liberty during World War I, and windows were cut into the torch and lights placed inside to make it gleam, but by the 1970s, rain seeping in had led to rusting of both the torch and right arm.
Subsequently, with America’s entry into the First World War, the Statue appeared in numerous War Bond fundraising drives. One poster tagline read, “Food will win the war. You came here seeking freedom. You must now help to preserve it. Wheat is needed for the Allies. Waste nothing.” Since then, the Statue has been seen in numerous American films and television commercial advertisements.
In 1886, when putting the Statue together, workers had accidentally attached the head and right arm about two feet out of alignment with the original design. As a result, the supports for Liberty’s right arm were never as strong as Eiffel had intended them to be.
By the late 1970s, her shoulder was in need of a major repair; moreover , Liberty’s
head was tilted in such a way that one point of her crown was threatening to punch a hole through the copper skin of the right arm.
In addition, salty air and corrosion on the outside skin and graffiti on the interior were also taking their toll on the once-grand edifice. The Statue had been declared a national monument in 1924 (like Ft. McHenry in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor), and in 1933 had been taken over by the Rangers of the National Park Service. By the 1970s, it was apparent to all that Liberty was in need of a general overhaul. Again, two Frenchmen were involved in this effort of restoration.
Engineer Jacques Moutard, repairing an old statue in France, talked with Philippe Vallery-Radot about the problems facing the Statue of Liberty a continent away. Together, they concocted a plan to repair her in time for her Centennial in 1986. They worked with American architect Richard Hayden, and their study of the Statue alone cost $ 5 million. The projected repairs were estimated to cost a further $ 30 million.
Supported by a Presidential fundraising commission named and launched by US President Ronald Reagan, funds came in from the American people and work began. A 305-foot-high scaffolding around Liberty was built in 1984; the restoration work (including lifting a new torch in place via helicopter) was completed by the start of 1986.
On July 3, 1986, with President and Mrs. Nancy Reagan in attendance, the Centennial of the Statue of Liberty was celebrated, with tugboats shooting geyser streams of water into the daylight sky and a magnificent fireworks display that evening as well.
French President Francois Mitterand represented the Republic of France during the ceremonies. The next day—the Fourth of July—22 tall ships paraded in the bay. The
Statue was reopened to visitors on the fifth, with an elevator added to the climb up Liberty’s 15 stories to the observation windows in her crown.
Today, a visit to the Statue of Liberty is still as thrilling and emotional an experience as it first was a century-plus ago.
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