Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Crown

For as long as I can remember, I've been hanging art on my walls at home, first in the bedrooms I had in my parents' houses then all over my apartments and condo when I got my own places after graduating from college. I think it all started with a map of England and Wales to which I applied football team stickers that my grandpa got from filling up his car with petrol in the 1970s. From there I moved to music posters in junior high and high school when we moved to this country (Asia and Jane Wiedlin come to mind here). When I got out of high school and college, I started dabbling in what I'll call "real art" posters, prints of Mondrian and Magritte works, although admittedly music still hadn't gone away and I'm sure there were some Marillion posters in there.

Once I got down to where I live now just outside Washington, D.C., I started to assemble my own collection of what I refer to as original art. My collection is unintentionally but very definitely American, which reflects my immigrant's love of this country. I have framed original or limited edition reproduction artwork depicting everything from the Chrysler Building to Johnny Cash (in mugshot form) to a fleur-de-lis from a New Orleans artist I met while down there to an original napkin sketch from architect Robert Venturi. But the jewel of my collection because I love it so much is a lithograph of the Statue of Liberty's head by artist Peter Max. Max cranks these things out by the dozens but I've never seen one quite like mine, which is on a green background that mirrors the Statue's copper patina.

The Statue of Liberty for me is one of the most iconic and most enduring symbols of America and that's why it is hanging on my wall. This country is still a land which retains some to most of the opportunities which it advertised to thousands of immigrants over the last couple of centuries and it is also a place which is spiritually and physically beautiful like few other countries on this planet. As much as we may feel our government misses the mark on so many issues, it's still a wonderful place to live for most of its residents, myself included.

Lower Manhattan seen from one of the windows in the Statue's crown.
I think it is fairly common knowledge that the Statue was a gift from France to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence but the details of that story may be less well known, so I'll summarize briefly here.

The Statue was the brainchild of Edouard de Laboulaye, a French political thinker and expert on the United States Constitution. He first advertised the idea in 1865 and began drumming up support (and ultimately, cash) for the endeavor shortly thereafter. He gained the approval for the idea from the French government in 1870 and then things really started to move. He turned to sculptor Auguste Bartholdi to put a vision to his idea and the result was something pretty close to the current statue, otherwise known as Liberty Enlightening the World.

Bartholdi's task was to produce a statue, which he did with flying colors. But designing a sculpture 151 feet high is one thing; making it stand up is another. So Bartholdi turned to Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who was a former professor of Bartholdi's and at that time one of the world's foremost architects and structural thinkers. Viollet-le-Duc's idea for the Statue's structure involved a series of sand filled chambers on a central spine with armature bars to support the copper skin; basically a gravity loaded solution. This solution just wouldn't have been as much fun as what we have today, because it would have restricted tourist access (i.e. me) to the Statue. It would have been solid.

Unfortunately for Viollet-le-Duc, he died suddenly in 1879 and Bartholdi was forced to resort to a different solution. Enter Gustave Eiffel. You might have heard of him. He has a tower in Paris built for the 1889 World's Fair bearing his name that is somewhat famous. Fortunately for everyone, Eiffel reconsidered Viollet-le-Duc's idea of supporting the Statue (meaning he basically threw it away) and came up with the idea of a steel skeleton at the center of the Statue with armature bars supporting the skin as Viollet-le-Duc had conceived. Obviously it worked because 130 or so years later, the Statue is still standing.

The right shoulder of the statue,  a spike from the crown and New York harbor beyond.
Shortly after the Statue was unveiled to the public in 1886, people started climbing it and at various times throughout its history, you have been able to climb to the top of the pedestal, the crown, the torch or nothing at all. The torch has been closed since a 1916 World War I terrorist attack by German sympathizers on nearby Black Tom Island; the explosion, caused by the detonation of a whole lot of dynamite loaded onto barges in the New York Harbor, damaged the arm and despite being repaired, it has been deemed unsafe for visitation by tourists. The crown was off limits for almost eight years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. And the whole thing has been closed several times throughout its life, including for a wholesale cleaning and renovation in the 1980s.

In all the years I have been in love with the Statue of Liberty, I've visited maybe six or seven times, including three times from 2005 through 2012, which I suppose for someone who has never lived in New York City is a lot. But until Valentine's Day weekend of 2015, I'd never been to the crown. So as many people as I have taken or been with to the Statue, I had to make one more trip. After this one, I'm probably done. Maybe. It's difficult not to go back honestly.

I don't know exactly what it is that makes me want to climb up buildings. I suppose it's to get a different perspective on the places I'm visiting. I love seeing places from as many viewpoints as possible and there's no doubt I love exploring the inner spaces of famous places that few (few is a very relative term there) people get to visit. I feel like I've been somewhere secret sometimes so I always try to get to everywhere you can get when I'm on vacation.

I'm sort of afraid of heights so I know it's not the thrill of being up high although I have to admit the exhilaration of having been somewhere high up and feeling a little vertigo is worth it. When I'm at the top of wherever I'm going I generally tend to hold on tight to whatever is available so I don't fall off (even though there is really no danger of that) and I clutch my camera really firmly so I don't drop it. Not that I drop it when I'm close to the ground; it really makes no sense.

Regardless of the reason, last month was the Statue of Liberty's time, just like last May was the Sagrada Familia's time and last September was St. Paul's time. So Friday morning, February 13, I left my hotel just north of Times Square, hopped on the 1 line of the Subway to to the South Ferry station and boarded the Miss New York boat to take me over to Liberty Island one last time. Probably. Maybe. I booked the first tour of the day at 9 a.m. and figured if I got really lucky, I'd be the first one up there and have the inside of Lady Liberty's head all to myself.

The double helix stair with Eiffel's main Statue support.
Climbing to the top of the Statue of Liberty is not only an exploration of one of my favorite buildings, it  also enhanced my understanding of how the whole thing stands up. And if you know me well, you know that any vacation that educates me is a good vacation (never stop learning). The main support for the statue is a four-sided trussed frame with a double helix spiral stair running right in the middle of the frame. From the primary frame, there are a series of supports which attach to the hammered copper skin of the statue. I really had very little understanding of how this worked in my prior visits; now I understand it very well.

The double helix spiral stair is, as the name suggests, two spiral stairs wrapped around a single central column which results in the two stairs being intertwined. One of the stairs is for folks going up to the crown; the other is for people making the descent. This is one of the tightest stairs I've ever climbed. I remember climbing to the top of the towers at Chartres Cathedral in France and holding onto both stone sides for support but the Statue's stair strikes me as being smaller. Either that, or I'm larger. Or both. I'm surely larger than I was in 2002 when I was in France last.

The ascent to the top involved me leaning hard against the center column and placing one foot after the other on successive steps, kicking the riser of the step and sliding my foot outward until I got sufficient tread to allow me to take the next step. I didn't get a chance to look around while I was climbing. I just didn't want to break my concentration for even a few seconds. Not that I was in danger of falling or anything, I just couldn't climb and look at the same time. There just wasn't enough space. Fortunately, there are platforms every so often where you can exit the spiral and look around at the inside surface of the Statue's skin. And get some rest. If you need rest. Not saying I did or didn't. Just pointing it out.

The tablet. Pretty much the only way you get this view is by climbing to the crown.
After a climb that's really not as long as you think it might be, you emerge from the double helix and into the head of the Statue of Liberty. The place is a lot smaller than I thought it would be, probably being able to hold eight people maximum in addition to the two park rangers who were standing on the Statue's skeleton behind us when we got to the crown. There's not a whole lot to see inside the head itself but at the bottom of the crown is a series of small pivoting windows that allow you glimpses of Manhattan, the Statue's arm, two of the spikes of the crown and, best of all, the tablet in the Statue's arm that reads July 4, 1776.

We were not the first ones in the crown that day by the way. We were first onto the stair, but when we stopped at one of the rest platforms to take a look around, another couple sped by us. It didn't matter; we could see what we needed to see with them there just as well as we could have if they hadn't been there. It was close enough to the beginning of the day that it was really OK. The badge of pride was lost, that's all.

After a few minutes in the crown, we were done. It was so quick but it's really only very small. We looked out the tiny windows at whatever we could see, took some selfies, felt the Statue sway in the wind (the rangers said 1-2" maximum) and were off back down the double helix stair. 

Going down is different than going up. There's really not enough room to walk down like on any sort of other spiral stair I've been down. Fortunately, in addition to the handrail on the outside of the stair at the height I would expect to find it, there was a supplementary handrail above my head, so the descent involved me leaning my body backwards, holding onto the handrail at my waist with my left hand and bracing myself from falling backwards with my right hand on the overhead rail. Interesting but totally effective way to go down a stair.

The back of the Statue's face. The nose is in the center of the picture. The right eye is at the upper right.
That's most of my story about a monument I've loved for years and a climb I've wanted to make as long as I found you could get to the crown. I'm so glad I did this. I'm not sure I would have without this blog so I'm thankful I've resolved to be more adventurous. Now when I look at the Statue on the wall of my living room, I understand it on another level.

But that's not the end. After all that, there are two treats on the way down. First, about 20 steps down, you get to see the back of the Statue's face up close, which is really pretty cool because you can make out the eyes, nose and other facial features in the copper skin in reverse. Bartholdi allegedly modeled the face after his mother, who must have been stern and strong but also somehow beautiful just like the Statue.

The second hidden gem is a little further down at the top of the Statue's right arm, which is the one holding the torch. There's a wire mesh fence and door at this spot with a sign displaying the words "Here you can see the torch access point. It has been closed since 1916." Look beyond the fence and you can make out the bunched fabric of the Statue's robe at the top of her arm and a ladder going up in the center of the space made by the upper arm. I can't imagine how amazing it would be to ascend that ladder. I also can't imagine how anyone thought it was a good idea to let tourists up there in the first place. Stopping here and at the back side of the face on the way down made this climb even better. If they ever open this up again, even on a super limited basis, I'm going back. Not probably. Not maybe. Definitely.

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