A Beacon of Freedom: The Statue of Liberty Turns 130 Years Old


Aaron Feigenbaum

October 28th of this year marked the 130th anniversary of the dedication of one of the most recognizable and inspiring monuments in the world: the Statue of Liberty. While the importance and symbolism of other national icons such as the Liberty Bell, White House, and Washington Monument cannot be overstated, the Statue of Liberty remains the ultimate embodiment of America itself to many Americans – as well as countless people around the world.

Standing proud with a torch of freedom in one hand and a tablet of justice in the other, the Statue of Liberty has greeted immigrants since its dedication in 1886. To many, it represents the spirit of American generosity and a chance to leave behind a life of hardship and begin a new, better life. This hope is enshrined in the statue’s pedestal, upon which are engraved the immortal words of Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus in her sonnet “The New Colossus”:

…Give me your tired, your poor,

your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!


Yet, while the statue’s almost mythical status is etched permanently into America’s national heritage, few know the full story behind its design and construction.

The idea for the Statue of Liberty originated in 1865 from Edouard Rene de Laboulaye, a French author and anti-slavery activist who believed that after the bitter Civil War and the abolishment of slavery, America deserved a monument to commemorate its return to the ideals of justice and liberty. Not only that, the monument would serve as inspiration to the French people to rise up against the repressive regime of Napoleon III.


Frederic Auguste Bbartholdi

Laboulaye conferred with his friend, Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi (later to become the architect of the Statue of Liberty), on what form the statue should take and where it should be built. Bartholdi’s original intent was not to build a statue in America, but in Egypt where it would overlook the recently built Suez Canal. At the International Exposition of Paris in 1867, Bartholdi met the Khedive (leader of Egypt) and pitched the idea to build a mammoth statue of an Egyptian peasant woman that would stand at the entrance to the canal. Bartholdi made a few sketches but the statue was never actually built.

In 1871, with Laboulaye’s blessing, Bartholdi headed to America to scout a potential location for a statue and to garner support amongst influential Americans for his plan. Upon crossing into New York harbor, Bartholdi immediately homed in on Bedloe’s Island (later to be called Liberty Island) as it was a location all ships had to pass. Bartholdi conferred with President Ulysses S. Grant, who agreed that the island would be a suitable location.

Returning to France, Bartholdi worked with Laboulaye to design the statue. Female figures have been prominent in national symbolism since ancient times (e.g. Britannia’s Marianne and the Roman Empire’s Libertas), so the pair decided that, naturally, the statue should be of a woman. Furthermore, she would be clothed to represent peace and dignity, as well as carry a torch to symbolize the march of societal progress. He designed the statue’s crown to have seven points representing the seven continents and how the concept of liberty spans the globe. Bartholdi placed in the statue’s left hand a tabula ansata, a keystone-shaped tablet that has the date of the Declaration of Independence inscribed on it to symbolize both freedom and the rule of law.

After his design was complete, Bartholdi turned to his friend Eugene Viollet-le-Duc to be the project’s chief engineer. Viollet-le-Duc chose to use copper sheets to construct the statue as they would be thin yet durable. In 1875, Bartholdi began a fundraising effort to build the statue. Calling it Liberty Enlightening the World, the statue was billed as a way of celebrating America’s close relationship with France. He reached out to influential people both in America and France, and it was decided that France would pay for the statue itself while America would pay for the pedestal. Citizens across France donated money, and eventually enough copper came in to build the statue.

The right arm bearing the torch was the first piece to be constructed at the design firm Gaget, Gauthier & Co in Paris, located at no. 25 Rue de Chazelles (now a 6-storey apartment building). The firm had already earned a good reputation for their restoration work on the pillar at the Place Vendome, which was almost destroyed by revolutionaries. In May 1876, Bartholdi made a trip Philadelphia to represent France at the Centennial Exhibition. The statue’s arm came arrived there several months later and was put on display. It then travelled to Madison Square Park in New York where it was put on display for a few years before returning to France to be joined to the statue. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes officially accepted Bartholdi’s proposal to put the statue on Bedloe Island.

Building the Statue of Liberty

Bartholdi returned to Paris later that year and put his energy into completing the head, which was debuted at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair. Viollet-le-Duc died in 1879, and Bartholdi turned to Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) to help complete the project. Eiffel made significant improvements to the statue’s design to improve durability and resistance to corrosion. He also included two spiral staircases and an observation deck at the crown.

By the summer of 1883, the statue had risen to waist height and 25 rue de Chazelles became Paris’ hottest destination. World-renowned author Victor Hugo climbed into the statue’s unfinished staircase and is reported to have said “Glorious, glorious.” The statue was completed in 1884 and presented to the U.S. Ambassador to France, Levi Morton, fittingly, on the 4th of July.

Meanwhile, construction of the pedestal was underway at Fort Wood on Bedloe’s Island, a former army base that is now gone. The American committee in charge of building the pedestal chose Richard Morris Hunt (architect of such famous buildings as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island) to design it. Due to financial constraints, Hunt’s original 114 foot model for the pedestal had to be scaled down to 89 feet. Hunt took inspiration from classical Greek and Aztec architecture in his design, and construction began in 1883.

Once news reached Paris that sufficient progress had been made on the pedestal, the statue was dismantled into 350 parts at a total weight of about 225 tons. The pieces were shipped on the French steamer Isere across the Atlantic to arrive in New York on June 17, 1885, to the sight of over 200,000 well-wishers. However, things got bogged down when the pedestal project again faced financial difficulties. It wasn’t until April of the next year that the pedestal was completed.

Finally, on October 28, 1886, President Grover Cleveland, along with Bartholdi, dedicated the Statue of Liberty. A massive ticker-tape parade with hundreds of thousands of people was held in the streets of New York to celebrate the momentous occasion.

However, after the revelry, it became clear that very same night that something was wrong: the torch was too dim, making the statue nearly invisible at night. The island was transferred to the U.S. Lighthouse Board in 1887, which installed better lighting equipment. The island was later handed over to the War Department in 1901 under the order of President Teddy Roosevelt and it remained under military control until 1923. In 1903, friends of poet Emma Lazarus presented the bronze tablet which bears her famous “New Colossus” poem on it. Lazarus was inspired to write the poem after her humanitarian work with Jewish victims of the 1881 Russian pogroms.

Shortly after 1900, the statue’s original copper color began to rust and turn green. By 1906, the entire statue had developed a coat of verdigris. Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to repaint it, but public protests led them to keep it the green color that it is to this day.

In 1916, in the midst of World War I, German saboteurs set off a bomb close to the statue resulting in damage to its right arm. The statue was closed for 10 days while it was repaired at a cost of $100,000 ($2.2 million in today’s dollars). If you’re wondering why visitors today can’t go up to the torch, this is why.

President Franklin Roosevelt transferred control of the statue to the National Park Service in 1933 and later the entire island in 1937. In the process of converting the island to a park, the Works Progress Administration removed the abandoned military buildings, built new steps at the statue’s rear and made various upgrades to the statue’s durability. The statue was completely closed to visitors during World War II and not illuminated at night. Famously, the torch flashed the letter “v” on D-Day to symbolize “V for victory.”

In 1956, Congress officially renamed Bedloe’s Island to Liberty Island. An immigration museum was built in the statue’s base and dedicated by President Nixon in 1972. (The museum was later closed in 1991 and replaced by the one on Ellis Island). For the U.S.’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976, new lighting was installed and an impressive fireworks display showed the statue in its full glory.

In advance of the statue’s centennial in 1986, extensive plans were made to restore it. Spearheaded by President Reagan, a commission was established to raise funds to complete the repairs. Once the funds were raised, work began in 1984. The statue was given a new copper skin, developed by Bell Labs, to better resist corrosion. The torch, which was discovered to have been leaking water since it was damaged in 1916, was completely replaced with a replica. The lighting was also replaced, and a modern, handicapped-accessible elevator was installed. On July 4, 1986, Reagan re-dedicated the statue saying, “We are the keepers of the flame of liberty; we hold it high for the world to see.”

Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the Statue of Liberty and Liberty Island were closed to the public. In 2009, President Obama finally announced that the statue would be reopened to a limited number of people per day. Additional modifications were made in 2011 to the elevators, restrooms and staircases. The statue was officially declared reopened to the general public in October 2012 only to close the day after the announcement due to Hurricane Sandy. The damages caused by the hurricane forced both Liberty Island and Ellis Island to remain closed until June 2013.

In October of this year, construction began on a new $70 million museum on the island. The museum, backed by Jewish fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, is slated to open in 2019. It will house the original torch along with artifacts related to the statue’s construction and an observation platform offering sweeping views of both the island and the city.

The statue welcomes an estimated 7 million visitors per year and is to this day a truly defining symbol of America.