HIDDEN SOMEWHERE in the torch of the Statue of Liberty is a piece of copper plate with six names inscribed upon it. Hidden inside the statue's skirt, behind an armature bar, are other names. In the first instance the names are French. In the second, American. All represent an unauthorized signing by those who worked to rebuild the statue on her centennial.
"I don't think the names will be seen again," said John Wiart, who headed the French team that rebuilt the torch, "not for 100 years. Not until they take her apart again; maybe never."
Wiart's words help one to understand the mystery and the meaning of the Statue of Liberty. Those who labored to rebuild her -- whether they be architects, artisans or ironworkers -- were deeply touched by their experience. The task reached beyond work. It represented the undefinable -- satisfying a need in all of us to be part of something beyond ourselves and ongoing.
The following interviews were conducted over the past two years with persons involved in restoring the statue. Lawrence Bellante is the project manager for the restoration; Edward Cohen is the restoration's consulting engineer; Tom Crisci supervised the construction of the largest free-standing scaffolding in the world to enable the exterior work on the statue; and Thierry Despont, a French national who became an American citizen, is the associate architect for the restoration. LAWRENCE BELLANTE
Do think this project would mean the same to you if you hadn't been the child of immigrant parents?
I don't know. I've wondered about that. I think the experience of the statue and maybe even more so Ellis Island is more meaningful to immigrants who had experienced it, and their first generation. And yet, I see my grandsons all excited about the statue. The schoolchildren in this drive gave and gave and gave. What they did in sending their pennies and nickels in these big jars and so forth would indicate that it's not just the immigrant and the first generation that feels so much about the statue.
Tell me again about what your father said. What kind of boat did he come over on?
It was an Italian passenger vessel but I can't remember the name of it, but the first time he came over, he said that the people around him were crying, and he realized that it was exciting. The second time he came over, is when he said he was on the verge of tears, because now he felt that this was his final commitment; this was where he was going to be for the rest of his life. And he did succeed in staying here this whole time. He said everybody's feeling was that of hope. Here was the chance for a beginning. He thought that everybody believed this; this was the land of hope, this was where the opportunities were. This was a beginning for a new life, and he felt very strongly about it. And many many times I would kid him, I would say to him, "Dad, I sure am glad you took the boat." And he'd laugh and wink at me and smile, because I don't know what would've happened had I been born over in Italy. But certainly the opportunities I received here can't be compared with any country in the world. And my father had to take that trip, had to go through Ellis Island, in order for me to be the beneficiary of this land of opportunity.
What was your father like?
My father? My father was a stone mason. A hard-working man who had two jobs. He worked on the Lehigh Valley Railroad by day and moonlighted as a construction -- at his own construction company on weekends. He put up garages and fireplaces and all of the things that stonemasons do. And he needed somebody to mix the mortar, and I was that fellow. So while other kids were playing baseball, I was mixing mortar and carrying pails of water for him, and he paid me. He was a very fair man, but work, work, work. He was hard-working.
His most important thing in his life was to have his son be graduated from college, a thing that he had never been able to do himself. I would've really disappointed him had I not fulfilled that ambition of his. And all of his work was to make sure that he had enough money to support his family, to send me to college. I grew up in the Depression years, and he had to definitely use his ingenuity, and his willingness to work, in order to make ends meet. He managed it quite successfully.
Five in the morning he would get up to go to work. I would get up with him so I could deliver newspapers. We'd walk down to the diner and he'd buy me a cup of coffee and some breakfast, and he'd go off to the railroad, and I'd get my newspapers to deliver before I went to school It was a very, very warm relationship. A very basic relationship. He expected me to work as hard as he did, which I do. Good upbringing, very solid.
Just assuming he was alive, and he was standing out on the island next to you on the Fourth of July, and when the president lights the statue, what do you think he'd say to you?
He wouldn't; he'd be crying. He would be happy. He would be thrilled. So in between his smiling with pride, there would be tears in his eyes. He would be too choked up to say anything.
When you're standing up on it and looking out on the harbor, and you see boats now are not carrying passengers, they're carrying crates. Did it ever come to mind that your parents came through there?
It sure does. I sure do. When you go into Ellis Island and you see what the experience was of people who came over, and the holding areas, and the medical facilities, where they received their papers, and the railroads -- that ticket office where they would get their tickets to go to whatever city they were going to be going to -- it must have been some unbelievable scene to watch all this happening. And to think that my mother and father came through, and were a part of that -- it's exciting.
When I'm on the island I can't help but feel that is something that has my roots in it. My parents went through this, and they had this experience. I can't wait until this museum is finished. I can't wait to see what it was really like. Because they're going to recreate the experience quite vividly. I think it's going to be very exciting. I can't wait to see it.
I really don't ever stop being in awe of what we're doing. It's with me all the day, and you know -- we have breakfast, we're talking about it; we work all day, and then we have dinner and we're talking about it. It never leaves us. I just don't know of a project that will ever have this overpowering and all-consuming devotion that all of us feel, all of us feel. And it's with us all day long.
The laborers feel it. The carpenters feel it. The iron workers feel it. It's really an exciting project because it's what it is: It's because of the statue. It's the symbol of hope for the world. And we feel it; we know. And we're going to make it last for centuries longer. It's an exciting thing, it really is.
Do you really feel that the workers feel this way?
Absolutely. Without question. It's the most meaningful job that any of them will work on. No one associated or on the job feels that this is just another job. I have not felt that with one person. Everyone is taking the attitude that this is a once in a lifetime thing, that this is a part of history. We are doing something that is very important for our country, for the world, to preserve our symbol. And they will say it in different words, but it always comes out the same: they want to be remembered. We're going to have a picture taken of all the workers that can make it on July 1st, of all the people who have worked on the job. We're going to have one big group picture taken. And that's going to be a great thrill. And everyone whose picture is taken is going to have a print to keep, so that's going to be a very eventful and momentous day for most of the people.
What's been the most difficult thing for you on this project?
One is that this partnership of government with the private sector in this particular fashion has never been attempted before. And it has inherent in the whole organizational structure opposing viewpoints. The Park Service is concerned with restoring it, preserving it, having it historically preserved and having the maintenance on it so that in the future they don't have to worry about funds that are too excessive for them to go to the Congress for. This is what they're looking for, they want the best possible job and the best materials, best maintenance type of material and with preservation in mind.
Now you get architects that are working on the project from the private sector, they're saying we want to do things that are a better experience than before. We want to change things. And that of course is in conflict in terms, with the preservation idea. Then you get the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation people saying, "Okay, we want to do all the things that the Park Service wants but we want also to spend our money most wisely. We are getting money from the public; we want to be able to be accountable for everything."
And so everyone has a different end goal although we all want the same thing, we all want to have the statue restored. We want it to be as maintenance free as possible, we want it to be as beautiful an experience as possible, we also want to change the experience somewhat so that it's not exactly what it was before. There are sometimes conflicts in terms, and compromises therefore have to be made. And it's difficult at times to arrive at them.
The one perfect example of a decision like this was the decision to gild the flame or to go back to the glass in the flame and light it in the inside. As you know Alsatian sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi always intended for it to be gilded and lit from the outside. We changed it here in America when it came over there. Now, what do you do? Do you say, "Okay. Let's stick with what it was before, this is history, or let's go back to the original which is equally significant historically: Bartholdi's original design. At this time, you can say, "You know, I can make the decision either way and be historically correct."
But at this time, why not do which is the better of the two solutions, which we felt was the gilding? And it was certainly the right decision. I think you see that by now. It's magnificent. Well, it's beautiful when the sun is shining now; it's just gorgeous.
When it's all over, and someone who really knows all the truth, was asked, what was Bellante's contribution to this, what do you hope they would say?
That I was the project director, and that I insisted on impeccable professionalism, and that we got the job done in that fashion, and on time, because of the high standards which I demanded, and which we received. I would like to be remembered just the way they had spelled it out. That was my contribution, was to make sure that we spent the money wisely, we got the best performance from everyone, and on schedule. And that is the way I hope to be remembered. That I was successful in doing that. EDWARD COHEN
What makes this special to you?
The statue really has been a neighbor to us for the past 12 years since we've been in this office and I look out at it every day but until we started working on the statue, we really didn't get the full feeling. She was a symbol; she was sitting out there but as we worked with her, she becomes, I was going to say human, but I think it's more than human.
And sometimes we kid around, we say we're her dermatologists and orthopedists and neurosurgeons and so forth and you can relate that back to the work that's being done on it, but I think beyond that there's a personal reaction to the statue which is because she's there and because she's an obvious symbol of what we believe America to be, and it may be that each one of us has a different idea of what she represents. Obviously when she was first built, she was liberty and light in the New World. And then later on, much later Emma Lazarus gave her another meaning with her poem, "Give me your tired, your hungry, your huddled masses." And to me now, I think that she represents a just America's continuing commitment to justice and freedom and what I've come to know and love over my lifetime.
So when your family talks about what you do and your children and your grandchildren, they will say, "Well -- "
Well, of all the projects that I've done, the only one that they talk about now is the Statue of Liberty and I was very proud. Well, pride isn't the right word. But a few weeks ago my granddaughter out in Chicago had in kindergarten, had show and tell. And she brought in a picture of the Statue of Liberty and she said, "My granddaddy is doing that." I'm very proud of that. TOM CRISCI
You were retired when they decided to put you to work?
Yes, I retired a week before. They asked me about the Statue of Liberty, to work on it. Well, then I told my wife I wanted to do it so she said okay. She allowed me to do it. So I canceled my Social Security and my pension from the union, everything I canceled, and I went back to work on the statue. Because my father talked so much about it and my mother talked so much about it and they were so proud of it. Oh, they were proud to come to this country.
What did your father do?
He was a shoemaker. He learned it when he was in Italy and he come over here and worked on shoes. Then he went into the florist business. He was a florist when the shoes went real slow. He used to make shoes like for Shirley Temple and all these big movie stars, you know -- personal shoes for them.
How could he bring you up, making shoes?
It was a tough thing, but he did it. It was real tough. But he managed it. He worked hard for us. So I figure, well, the best I got to do is work on the statue. I know he was proud of it. My father was so proud I could work on the Statue of Liberty because he always said it's America. He always liked America. He wouldn't go back to Italy. He loved America. He said it was beautiful here. He liked it and he used to tell me when he came into the harbor, he saw the Statue of Liberty, and then he went into Ellis Island and then he went for citizenship papers. He used to tell me all that, how proud he was. So I told him I'm working on it and I showed him, I took all the pictures. I used to go there every other day to the nursing home -- my brothers and I.
Did you look out at the harbor and say my father came through here?
I used to, a lot of times I did that, looked down and said, boy, my father was so proud of me that I was working, that I was here. I could just picture him, coming on a big steamship and looking at the statue. I could just picture him because he used to tell me that when I was a kid, how he saw the statue when he first come to this country. And I looked plenty of times and I said, "Boy, this is something to do, to be out here, really something I wanted all my life to do, just to work on the statue. I guess because my father talked about it.
Did he ever tell you about the Statute of Liberty when he came?
Yes, he told me when he came on the ship the first thing he saw in the harbor was the Statue of Liberty. He saw from way far away, he saw it. Saw it coming into the harbor. He saw the Statue of Liberty. He said he had goosepimples, you know, when he saw that.
The Statue of Liberty is America, you know. That's something all around the world people know is the Statue of Liberty. They don't know nothing about the Empire State building, about the Brooklyn Dodgers, nobody else, the Yanks. The Statue of Liberty -- that's the United States, that's all they know. You go any part of the world and you say the Statue of Liberty, everybody knows the Statue of Liberty. But that's all they know, just the Statue of Liberty and the United States. That's two things they know. THIERRY DESPONT
How would you describe Bartholdi just as a human being?
I'm impressed by his tenacity and his single-mindedness. He must have been unbelievably tenacious to spend 25 years of his life on one idea -- to the point of maybe bordering on the boring. I mean, imagine having dinner with Bartholdi 10 years after the first dinner and you would still be talking about the idea of building a statue. That must have turned off a few people at some point. So I respect that. I'm sorry. I feel that impressed by it.
He left his journal, which has some touching moments. I mean, I like when he talks about seeing the statue being just finished. It's very understated. It's very quiet. Well, I've seen it and I was concerned but I think it's a success. You know, . . . you can feel the joy of the artist who finally accomplishes that and it's not bragging and he had certainly strength of character.
Charles Guggenheim is producer and director of "The Building of Liberty," which will be shown on public television on Oct. 28, the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. The interviews are excerpted from that program.