Origins of the Statue of Liberty
Around 1865, as the American Civil War drew to a close, the French historian Edouard de Laboulaye proposed that France create a statue to give to the United States in celebration of that nation’s success in building a viable democracy. The sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, known for largescale sculptures, earned the commission; the goal was to design the sculpture in time for the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876. The project would be a joint effort between the two countries–the French people were responsible for the statue and its assembly, while the Americans would build the pedestal on which it would stand–and a symbol of the friendship between their peoples.
Due to the need to raise funds for the statue, work on the sculpture did not begin until 1875. Bartholdi’s massive creation, titled “Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World,” depicted a woman holding a torch in her raised right hand and a tablet in her left, upon which was engraved “July 4, 1776,” the adoption date of the Declaration of Independence. Bartholdi, who was said to have modeled the woman’s face after that of his mother, hammered large copper sheets to create the statue’s “skin” (using a technique called repousse). To create the skeleton on which the skin would be assembled, he called on Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, designer of Paris’ Eiffel Tower. Along with Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Eiffel built a skeleton out of iron pylon and steel that allowed the copper skin to move independently, a necessary condition for the strong winds it would endure in the chosen location of New York Harbor.
Statue of Liberty: Assembly and Dedication
While work went on in France on the actual statue, fundraising efforts continued in the United States for the pedestal, including contests, benefits and exhibitions. Near the end, the leading New York newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer used his paper, the World, to raise the last necessary funds. Designed by the American architect Richard Morris Hunt, the statue’s pedestal was constructed inside the courtyard of Fort Wood, a fortress built for the War of 1812 and located on Bedloe’s Island, off the southern tip of Manhattan in Upper New York Bay.
In 1885, Bartholdi completed the statue, which was disassembled, packed in more than 200 crates, and shipped to New York, arriving that June aboard the French frigate Isere. Over the next four months, workers reassembled the statue and mounted it on the pedestal; its height reached 305 feet (or 93 meters), including the pedestal. On October 28, 1886, President Grover Cleveland officially dedicated the Statue of Liberty in front of thousands of spectators.
The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
In 1892, the U.S. government opened a federal immigration station on Ellis Island, located near Bedloe’s Island in Upper New York Bay. Between 1892 and 1954, some 12 million immigrants were processed on Ellis Island before receiving permission to enter the United States. From 1900-14, during the peak years of its operation, some 5,000 to 10,000 people passed through every day.
Looming above New York Harbor nearby, the Statue of Liberty provided a majestic welcome to those passing through Ellis Island. On a plaque at the entrance to the statue’s pedestal is engraved a sonnet called “The New Colossus,” written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus as part of a fundraising contest. Its most famous passage speaks to the statue’s role as a welcoming symbol of freedom and democracy for the millions of immigrants who came to America seeking a new and better life: “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!”
The Statue of Liberty Over the Years
Until 1901, the U.S. Lighthouse Board operated the Statue of Liberty, as the statue’s torch represented a navigational aid for sailors. After that date, it was placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. War Department due to Fort Wood’s status as a still-operational army post. In 1924, the federal government made the statue a national monument, and it was transferred to the care of the National Parks Service in 1933. In 1956, Bedloe’s Island was renamed Liberty Island, and in 1965, more than a decade after its closure as a federal immigration station, Ellis Island became part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.
By the early 20th century, the oxidation of the Statue of Liberty’s copper skin through exposure to rain, wind and sun had given the statue a distinctive green color, known as verdigris. In 1984, the statue was closed to the public and underwent a massive restoration in time for its centennial celebration. Even as the restoration began, the United Nations designated the Statue of Liberty as a World Heritage Site. On July 5, 1986, the Statue of Liberty reopened to the public in a centennial celebration. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Liberty Island closed for 100 days; the Statue of Liberty itself was not reopened to visitor access until August 2004. In July 2009, the statue’s crown was again reopened to the public, though visitors must make a reservation to climb to the top of the pedestal or to the crown.