Imagine that you were strolling Broadway at 23rd Street in 1880. When you arrived at Madison Square Park, you would have seen a strange 6 story arm holding a torch, rising above the trees. You are then asked for a donation to help build a colossal statue in New York Harbor. You know there are hungry people living in tenements all around and wonder to yourself, why do we need this ugly arm statue?
You find out– the French sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, is building an enormous statue depicting Liberty, and raising funds from the French people, in order to give it as a gift to the United States. Americans just have to pay for an appropriate base for the 151 foot tall copper statue. You decide not to give any money for this cockamamie scheme!
Crazy idea? Maybe, but actually, there was a precedent for the giant statue in a harbor. One of the “seven ancient wonders of the world” was The Colossus of Rhodes: an ancient bronze statue of the Greek god of the sun, Helios, from around 290 BC.
Fundraising was difficult, and work on the pedestal was threatened due to lack of funds. Thankfully, publisher Joseph Pulitzer started a drive for donations to complete the project that attracted more than 120,000 contributors, most of whom gave less than a dollar.
The New York committee decided to place it over rarely used Fort Wood on Bedloe’s Island. The island’s fortifications were previously designed in the shape of an 11-point star. Renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt was commissioned to design the pedestal, which ended up 89 feet tall, after budget reductions. Hunt’s design included a truncated granite pyramid with Doric portals, cornice and base in the neoclassical style. It was meant to represent the triumph of Liberty over Europe’s old ways.
Meanwhile, back in Paris, Bertoli had started construction in 1875. During initial work on the head and arm, Bertoli had consulted with the great French architect Viollet-le-Duc who helped design structural issues. After Viollet-le-Duc died in 1879, Bertoli turned to Alexandre Gustave Eiffel as the structural engineer– who had revolutionized the way bridges and viaducts were designed, but not yet conceived of the Eiffel Tower.
Ten years after he began, Bertoli was finished with the statue. In 1885, it was disassembled and crated for its voyage overseas to New York. It barely stayed afloat through a terrible storm, but arrived with fanfare in New York.
Of course, the base ,which was begun in 1883, was unfinished and work had stopped due to funding shortages. Remember, at this time, they were still building the Capital and the Washington Monument was yet unfinished. But the arrival in New York of the French Steamer Isère with the crated statue, gave the final impetus for fundraising and the base was completed the next year. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead assisted in readying the grounds of the island.
A ceremony of dedication was held on the afternoon of October 28, 1886 with President Grover Cleveland. There were hundreds of boats covering New York Harbor.
A quarter-scale bronze replica of Lady Liberty was erected in Paris in 1889 as a gift from Americans living in Paris. It is 35 feet tall and was built on a small island in the River Seine, just south of the Eiffel Tower.
Now you may know more than you wanted to know about the history and construction of “Liberty Enlightening the World“ as it was named by Bertoli.
But the larger point is:
Today, we are forever indebted to our hope-filled predecessors who paid for “crazy wonderful ideas” like art, architecture, monuments and social security programs.
“We have to look to the future with hope-filled and exciting plans.”
Greeting millions of immigrants;
Embodying hope and opportunity for those seeking a better life;
Stirring the desire for freedom in people all over the world.
- The Arm of Liberty (messynessychic.com)
- Orly Genger at Madison Square Park (manhattanwithatwist.com)
- Wretched Richard’s Almanac: 6.19.13 (richarddaybell.wordpress.com)