Tuesday, 29 July 2014

55. Wonder: The Statue of Liberty

(For the Statue of Liberty preview, please click here.)

It's not difficult to imagine the impact the Statue of Liberty once had. Crammed onto a crowded boat, immigrants from Europe spent days, weeks, crossing the Atlantic. Finally, New York and the New World came into view, and a very significant part of that view would have been the gigantic copper Lady Liberty, holding aloft a torch. Most making the journey were fleeing from desperate times in the hope of a new start, a new life. The Statue of Liberty was the first symbol of that, welcoming the newcomers. On the way to Ellis Island, right next to Bedloe (now Liberty) Island where the statue stands, the boats would have passed right by. Gasping, cheering, or just stunned silence, the passengers would have gazed upwards in astonishment at the 93-metre-high statue. Soon after, they disembarked on Ellis Island, where immigration officials gave them a “yes” or “no”. 98%, got a “yes”. Stepping outside, eyes would have wandered over to the increasingly high-rise Manhattan Island and then back to the small island with the big statue, a symbol of their new life. Liberty beckoned.

This was never intended. During the inauguration in 1886 the speeches never mentioned immigration. The sculptor who masterminded the Statue of Liberty, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, envisioned it as a symbol of liberty, hence the official name of “Liberty Enlightening the World”. But his symbol was of liberty spreading outwards to the world from America, rather than liberty for those incoming. Ellis Island only became the first stop for immigrants in 1892, i.e. six years after the statue was erected, remaining open for business until 1954. Over 12 million people passed through in that time, passing under the giant statue as they went, and today around a third of all Americans – that's around 100 million people – can trace their ancestry to Ellis Island immigrants. It's no wonder that the Statue of Liberty is burned upon America's consciousness. A poem inscribed on a plaque on the pedestal in 1903 seems to have captured the sentiment perfectly. Its most famous part goes:

"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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

It's by a woman called Emma Lazarus, called "The New Colossus", and was written in 1883 - and promptly forgotten. Lazarus died of cancer in 1887, but in 1901 a friend of hers pushed to have her and her poem remembered, and succeeded on getting the plaque installed. Still, it wasn't an instant hit, but as the years went on, the immigrants kept coming in, and the Statue kept welcoming them, the poem grew in stature, reflecting a meaning that had not occurred to Bartholdi and its other creators.

Is there a more famous statue in the world? I doubt it. Forget about just statues, I would reckon the Statue of Liberty to be one of the most recognisable man-made structures in the world; perhaps only the pyramids of Giza and the Eiffel Tower eclipse it. It was built just as America became big, in terms of pretty much everything. Significantly, its media influence became massive, stretching across the world, only increasing as the 20th Century wore on, films and TV and music and images. Indeed, the funding of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty was heavily promoted by the media, specifically the media mogul Joseph Pulitzer, he of the Pulitzer Prize. New York is one of the most represented cities on earth in the media, and the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of the city. My question is – does it deserve it? Is it worthy of the fame? My answer, tentatively, would be: yes.

To the relief of Danielle and I, it was a warm, sunny Thursday afternoon as we entered Battery Park. I'd been keeping an eye on the various weather forecasts for a few days, and pretty much all of them suggested breaking storms at exactly the time we were due to get our boat from Battery Island to Liberty Island. As I'd already booked the ticket into the pedestal, there was no backing out. Come rain or shine, we'd be on the Statue Cruise. But although clouds were hovering, the sun was in command, and a day of adverse weather-free sightseeing, fit for the modern-day pampered tourist lay safely ahead.

Of course, standing in the natural harbour of New York, Lady Liberty has led a much less pampered life than we tourists. For 128 years, she has experienced pretty much everything that weather has to offer. Although made of copper, this is not a solid copper statue. That would have been prohibitively expensive and hideously impractical. The Statue of Liberty is hollow – it is an internal structure, a skeleton if you like, built from iron, with the copper skin attached. The copper is a mere 2.4 millimetres thick, or 3/32 of an inch, about the width of a couple of credit cards. The entire statue above the pedestal weights only 225 tons, with the copper making up 100 tons of that. To give this some comparison, its neighbour in midtown Manhattan, the Empire State Building, weighs around 350,000 tons. You'd think the statue would just blow away in the wind. But in 1938, a category 3 hurricane struck New York, killing a couple of hundred people in the area, causing millions of dollars worth of damage, and uprooting trees in Central Park. The Statue of Liberty was fine - it wasn't flung into New Jersey and was entirely unharmed. Just two years ago, another hurricane hit New York – Hurricane Sandy. The largest ever recorded Atlantic hurricane, it cut power, caused floods, and caused billions of dollars worth of damage. The Statue of Liberty was again unharmed. It had to be closed to the public for eight months, but that was due to the damage done to Liberty Island rather than the statue. It has survived extreme cold, heat, snow, lots of lightning, and winds over 100mph. Corrosion has seen the occasional restoration, but otherwise the only significant effect the environment has had upon the Statue of Liberty is colour. Copper is a light, malleable, and tough metal – and it's a very definite shade of brown. Take a look at this replica of the face in the pedestal museum.

And take a look at the real thing.

Apart from the face being smaller than you'd expect (just 8 feet, or 2.4 metres, high), you can see that one is brown and one is green. This is due to a natural process, of oxidation of pure copper. The green isn't rust, it's an oxidised coating called verdigris, which occurs with long-term exposure to air and seawater. It actually protects the copper from corrosion. It wasn't an expected development, but it still seemed to take people by surprise – including Bartholdi – when it occurred, from 1900. It didn't happen all at once, but took six years. Like blemishes spreading, patches of green formed across the brown copper, until eventually everything was green: the statue equivalent of Michael Jackson going white. These days, the Statue of Liberty's green-ness seems intrinsic, but originally, and for over 14 years, it looked like this.

The only other disturbance that weather causes to the Statue of Liberty is fog. This isn't a problem for the statue itself, but it kind of annoying for anybody wanting to view it. On the day of 28th October 1886, the day the Statue of Liberty was officially opened, the fog was so heavy that the statue could barely be seen. The fireworks display had to be postponed. It wasn't the only disruption. Despite the statue being of a woman, and a woman representing liberty at that, only a handful of women were allowed to attend the opening ceremony, including Bartholdi's wife and daughter. Some women's rights activists hired a boat and sailed within shouting distance to protest. But their sound was drowned out by the even greater disruption from the non-stop whistles and honks of the boats that filled the harbour for the occasion. The rain-soaked proceedings were inaudible as well as invisible.

But no such problem for us – it was a bright, clear day, and no protestors in sight. After being on a boat stuffed with sightseers for around 15 minutes, arriving on Liberty Island is a relief. The island isn't at all big but the people quickly disperse, and Danielle and I found it perfect for a pleasant stroll. The natural clockwise route took us to an open area, with the US flag in the centre, connected by an short avenue to the rear of the statue. In effect, we were creeping up on Lady Liberty. I believe that this kind of thing is frowned upon in today's age.

The island is packed full of trees and is a relaxing place, spacious enough for peace, but busy enough with the buzz of tourists. It's around one-and-a-half miles from Manhattan, meaning you get a lovely view of the crowded island.

It also means, a little unfairly, that the Statue of Liberty gets a bit of an unfair reputation of being “smaller than expected”. At 46 metres high, it's still one of the tallest statues in the world today, and when you include the pedestal to make 93 metres, it's pushing top ten. Not bad, when almost everything else in the top 100 is late 20th Century. But because it's over a mile from Manhattan, the general view people get of it is of a tiny speck in the distance.

Fame counts against it too, in this regard. The Statue of Liberty's fame makes it seem enormous. In films featuring its destruction, with the head rolling through New York, the head has often been enlarged because the correctly-sized head appears too small for cinema-goers! Also, in a city of skyscrapers, a statue of 93 metres doesn't seem such a big deal. It's a little unfair, because remove all these expectations and just look up at the thing...

It's pretty big! Indeed, it remains the tallest statue in America today, and for some years was the tallest structure in New York until the age of skyscrapers took hold..

And that was just how Bartholdi devised it. Although he was working under the pretense of giving America a gift from France to commemorate its independence and the friendship between the countries, he was really just looking for any excuse to build a huge statue. Bartholdi was a sculptor of excellent repute, before and after the Statue of Liberty designing various large fountains in France as well as a giant stone lion of 11 metres high, 22 metres long. But he was after something bigger. He'd approached Egypt with a proposal of a giant woman, holding a torch, under the (somewhat Eurocentric) theme of “Progress”. It didn't go ahead, but even though he denied it, it seems a pretty obvious inspiration for the Liberty project which did go ahead. As early as 1869, the idea was in the air, and Bartholdi travelled across America promoting the idea from 1871. In 1874, it was announced in France – the statue was go. The French loved the idea, with over 100,000 individuals and organisations donating. By 1881, the French has raised the $400,000 estimated costs (something like $8 million today).

Work was well underway by then. In 1878, if you'd visited Paris, you would have been greeted with this.

That's the completed head and upper torso, on display at the Paris Exhibition. The face, it is claimed, is based upon Bartholdi's mother, and there is a - likely apocryphal - tale of Bartholdi inviting a US senator to his box at the opera, which Barthodi's mother was sharing. Upon entering, the senator was astonished to see the statue in the form of an old lady, exclaiming “That's the Statue of Liberty!”

The sculpting process of the Statue of Liberty wasn't the traditional image you might usually associate, with Barthholdi dressed in a smock chiselling away on a block of stone, or copper as it would have been in this case. Rather, it was a real feat of planning and engineering. As I've said, the statue is hollow, with the thin copper skin draped over an iron frame. This was a statue on an unprecedented scale, so there wasn't exactly a list of step-by-step procedures for this kind of thing. Enter a legend of this blog: Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, restorer-extraordinaire. As a student, Bartholdi had trained under him, and it was Viollet-le-Duc who suggested sculpting by means of repousse, which is French for "pushed up" and involves hammering metal into shape from the inside. Bartholdi would make a regular sculpture and a mould would be taken. Meanwhile, a frame for the statue would be built, copper sheets hung over it, and the mould place on the outside of these sheets. The copper would then be hammered into this mould from the inside. The head and arm pictured above – Viollet-le-Duc was behind that. But in 1879, he died, not leaving further instructions as to how the rest of the statue would be built. So enter another blog legend – Gustave Eiffel.

Gustave Eiffel has the rare honour of being directly involved in two of the most famous structures of all time. His famous tower was still a glint in his eye, a decade away, but when he got on board with the Statue of Liberty he was already an established bridge-builder and a maestro of iron construction. He devised the interior supporting frame that stands in New York harbour today. At the core is a 30-metre high central pylon, with a network of smaller beams branching off from it in the exact shape of the statue. A 12-metre girder extends from the pylon to make the arm. Sheets of copper were fastened to braces on the beams, with the weight being transferred to the central pylon. Workers then hammered the copper from the inside, into the mould placed on the outside - repousse. If you enter the pedestal and climb to the top and look up, you can get a glimpse of this bewilderingly intricate system

By 1884, the statue was complete. And for a year, it stood in Paris. While enthusiasm was high in France, it had waned in America, who were supposed to be building the pedestal. Funds had dried up. A Paris-educated American architect called Richard Morris Hunt was in charge of the pedestal, and he had visions of building it in the style of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Classic Wonders of the World. Funding restrictions forced him to trim this design from 35 metres to 27 metres, fortunately making it a little more complementary in scale to the statue. Essentially built from concrete, but faced with granite, it was built upon an old, disused fort on the island, called Fort Wood. This fortification was in the shape of an 11-point star, giving the base its characteristic look today.

It was the owner of the New York World newspaper, Joseph Pulitzer, who pushed for the long-delayed pedestal, giving the city a guilt trip and encouraging the public to send in donations.120,000 people obliged, and in 1885, with the pedestal underway, 214 cases containing the Statue of Liberty were shipped from France to America, to be assembled by April 1886.

The Statue of Liberty is a hugely popular tourist attraction these days, and although anybody can just turn up, get a cruise over and visit the island, visiting the pedestal requires pre-booking by days or more. It's worth it – the museum inside is pretty interesting, and the views from the top of the pedestal are great. Visits to the crown are possible too, but require months of pre-booking, and I missed the opportunity. Next time.

There are some landmarks that are eclipsed by their own fame: the Statue of Liberty is no doubt one. A giant statue standing on its own little island just off one of the greatest cities in the world, the Statue of Liberty would have a pretty good shot of being world famous even if it was a 50-metre Bea Arthur of the Golden Girls (gold-plated naturally). It's easy to be complacent about the statue – it's reached a level of fame where it's taken for granted. Sometimes it seems more of a symbol that an actual physical entity. The fame is part of its mythology, part of its appeal. It is a world icon. It has a celebrity status that seems to set it apart from normal judgement. It's a bit like watching Brad Pitt acting in a play in your local town hall – the quality of the acting isn't really assessed because you're too busy saying, “Hey, that's Brad Pitt!” But look beyond that. The Statue of Liberty is a striking and attractive statue, modelled on classical lines but seeming timeless. Remove expectations of it being a super-giant – fame has made it seem 400 metres tall, but 46 metres is still pretty big. If, somehow, you'd never heard of the Statue of Liberty, and found yourself in Manhattan taking the Statue Cruise boat out to Liberty Island, there's no doubt you'd be pretty damn impressed. If you were an arriving immigrant, you would be awe-struck by what would surely seem a Wonder of the World.

I'm not an arriving immigrant, I'm a pampered and surely spoiled tourist, that has seen some of the best the world has to offer. The Statue of Liberty is a great landmark, very iconic, and a hugely likeable statue, but it doesn't overwhelm the senses like some of the world's greatest places. It's big, but isn't dominating like the Colosseum or the Great Wall. It's attractive, but isn't as bewitching as the Taj Mahal or Mont Saint-Michel. It doesn't have the weight of history behind it, such as the Hagia Sophia. Put simply, it doesn't quite have the excessive qualities that the best Wonders have.

Some criteria then.

Size: 46 metres tall, but 93 metres on the pedestal, it's pretty big, although not super-massive. Its distance from Manhattan, where it is most commonly viewed from, make it appear a lot smaller.
Engineering: A very under-rated part of the Statue of Liberty. This is a giant, lightweight, hollow statue built on an island in New York harbour that has withstood hurricanes, barely batting an eyelid in the process. It was a technical feat of its day, requiring some of the 19th Century's best minds.
Artistry: A handsome, striking, noble statue.
Age: Late 19th Century, it is part of “old” New York
Fame/Iconicity: One of the most famous structures in the world. A symbol of liberty, America, and New York.
Context: Removed from the madness of New York, the statue stands alone, peacefully, on a nearby island, with terrific views of the Manhattan skyline.
Back Story: A rather charming, and quirky, tale of France deciding to give America a gift, just because they liked them. It then took some of the greatest minds in France to create it, and the statue has since assumed a role in American culture.
Originality/Distinctiveness: Pretty unmistakable (except for the many copies made of it over the years).
Wow Factor: I can't say it's big on the “wow”. It's very familiar, and the arrival by boat is slow and steady rather than dramatic, and the statue isn't big enough to overwhelm.

The original Wonders of the World had two statues on the list - the Statue of Zeus at Olympia and the Colossus of Rhodes. There's no doubt that the Statue of Liberty, being harbour-based, is a spiritual descendant of the Colossus of Rhodes. Over the course of these Wonders travels, I've visited a few large or super-large statues – the Spring Temple Buddha, the Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha, the Leshan Giant Buddha, and the slight odd-one out among this quartet of buddhas, the Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro (the Easter Island moai are a slightly different kind of thing). The Statue of Liberty is the best, in terms of craftmanship and sheer star quality. But just because the original Wonders list had a couple of statues doesn't mean this new list needs one. I still have Mount Rushmore and Abu Simbel to visit, but I suspect that the Statue of Liberty will be top of the statue ordering, but it still doesn't trouble the top bunch of Wonders. It positions respectably, just below the Notre-Dame de Paris and above Florence Cathedral.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Colosseum
7. The Eiffel Tower

Other Wonders
The Millau Viaduct
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sagrada Familia
Sydney Opera House
Leaning Tower of Pisa

St Peter's Basilica
Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Statue of Liberty
Florence Cathedral
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Verona Arena
Avignon Papal Palace
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam


  1. It is said that the world has got smaller since the advent of affordable air travel; in that context it is meant in a geographic/time sense, but in a way it could be applied to our built environment: a century ago there would have been relatively few structures approaching the 100m mark in any given place - in fact I believe that the Statue of Liberty was New York's highest landmark when it was built. I think that nowadays we tend to see historical structures as smaller than expected perhaps because we are surrounded by so many modern structures that are taller.

    Also I wonder how peoples' perception of something alters when it comes to be seen from a different perspective than before: i.e. in the past many peoples' first impression of it (whether immigrant or wealthy tourist) would have been upon arrival in New York harbour after crossing the ocean (as you mention in your first paragraph). Nowadays it is visited out from the city itself on a day trip. I think that the way we approach something can affect our impressions of it.

  2. Just to clarify the above, I think that the Wow Factor would be greater when seen after a long ocean crossing (as originally intended), just as a glass of water is more refreshing after being out in the sun or a cup final victory is more exhilarating when your club hasn't won anything for decades.

    1. It's true that most things can now be visited pretty casually. Even Machu Picchu, the "lost city of the Incas" can be visited in a day trip from Cusco. It's this ease of travel that makes my quest even possible, but you raise an interesting point. Perhaps everywhere has an optimal way to be visited. The Statue of Liberty would be best appreciated as an immigrant on an incoming vessel, the Colosseum would be best as a member of the audience in Roman times roaring in excitement at the bloodshed. Of course, as this kind of physical and temporal displacement isn't possible (though it makes an interesting thought experiment), the only way is to try and be neutral and experience everything as best as possible for a regular tourist.

      Nonetheless, I wonder what my "optimal experience" Wonder list would look like. The Statue of Liberty meeting these immigrants must really have seemed something.


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