Since Independence Day this year, the symbol of American freedom has been a bit… freer. As of July Fourth, visitors are once again allowed to climb the 354 steps up to the glassed-in crown area of the Statue of Liberty. That part of the monument has been off-limits since the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. U.S. park officials say safety and security issues have been addressed and 240 people a day - 10 at a time - will get to visit the crown over the next two years before it's closed, once again, for renovation.
Renovations to the statue are nothing new. Twenty-five years ago, Lady Liberty underwent a major facelift to protect her copper skin and strengthen her underlying frame. Blaine Cliver led that project.
Before he retired and moved to the northeastern state of Vermont six years ago, Cliver worked as an architect. But his focus wasn't so much on building new buildings as taking care of old ones. Working privately as well as for the U.S. National Park Service, he helped restore the royal Iolani palace in Hawaii, the historic Spanish forts in Puerto Rico and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's home in Hyde Park.
But his most famous project was heading up the restoration of the Statue of Liberty in the 1980s.
"I've been up and down inside and outside the statue many, many times. But still, it's always something that provides some awe," he says. Then, speaking as an architect, he adds, "It's also very interesting in terms of the way it's built and put together. I think also, you begin to appreciate what those people in France, who conceived the idea, were doing and how much effort went into making the statue. And it was really a grand gesture that maybe nobody but the French could do."
Elements take toll of famous statue
France gave the Statue of Liberty to the United States in 1876 as a centennial birthday present. Made of copper and supported by an iron framework, the statue has weathered well, standing tall at the entrance to New York Harbor. But by the late 1970s, Blaine Cliver says water damage had taken a toll.
"The torch showed the first signs of deterioration in the statue. And it was the bottom of the torch where water had collected, and this water would come down inside the torch and eventually down the arm and into the rest of the statue. So this became the focus of the work that was done eventually to restore the statue."
The torch, which was made of 250 pieces of welded glass, was leaking. So, Cliver had it replaced with a new torch made of solid copper and gilded with shiny gold leaf. Once that was finished, workers peeled back the statue's copper outer layer and replaced each of the 1,800 rusted iron support bars underneath.
Lady Liberty watches over New York
Cliver says the renovations to the statue and surrounding island took more than two years and cost more than $60 million. Private donations paid for the project, which Cliver says was the most high-profile and stressful he's overseen. Still, he admits he's proud of it.
"It has turned out very well, and that's pleasing. My daughter lives in Brooklyn in a converted warehouse right on the water, and you go on the roof and you can look across and there's the Statue of Liberty. You can never get away from her," he adds with a laugh.
While millions of people still visit the Statue of Liberty every year, the crowds have grown smaller since 2001. Park Service officials hope re-opening the crown area this month will help turn that around. Two-hundred-forty lucky people got tickets for the crown on July Fourth, including a man who flew in from California with his girlfriend to propose marriage at the top of the statue. She said yes.
About 14,500 tickets to the crown have already been sold, for visits through the end of August. Park Service officials expect tens of thousands of people to climb Lady Liberty over the next two years, until the crown area will once again be closed to the public as workers make additional safety and security upgrades.