One of the most biting ironies of Sept. 11 was that the terror attacks led fearful authorities to ban visitors from the United States' most enduring icon of freedom, the Statue of Liberty. Though the pedestal and lower observation deck re-opened in 2004, the statue itself has been off-limits since the Twin Towers fell barely two miles away. Last week Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that, beginning July 4, 2009, intrepid tourists would again be welcomed into the statue and up the 168 narrow, twisting steps to the crown and its breathtaking views of New York Harbor.
The copper and steel statue formally named Liberty Enlightening the World has been a fixture of New York City and a symbol for the nation since its dedication by President Grover Cleveland in October 1886. The 225-ton monument arrived a year earlier in 214 crates as a gift from France. Including her pedestal and foundation, Lady Liberty reaches 305 feet; her index finger measures eight feet long, tipped by a 13-inch fingernail. Designed by French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi to celebrate the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, the statue's $250,000 tab was covered via donations, a French national lottery and a benefit concert at the Paris Opera, among other things. America, in return, was responsible for the statue's base and pedestal, to be constructed within the existing walls of Fort Wood, an Army post on what was then known as Bedloe's Island. At first, most Americans weren't fans of Lady Liberty; out-of-town newspapers and political leaders scoffed at the idea of backing a "local" New York project. Momentum began to shift as Joseph Pulitzer used his New York World to talk up the effort, prompting benefit balls, theatrical performances and donations from schoolchildren to help finish the $280,000 job. (See 10 things to do in New York.)
In addition to welcoming millions of immigrants arriving at neighboring Ellis Island (the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," in the words of Emma Lazarus' poem, itself written as part of a Statue of Liberty fundraiser), the statue had a more immediately practical function: lighthouse. Considered a navigational aid to ships entering the harbor, the statue was first administered by the U.S Lighthouse Board before eventually falling under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. A massive, two-year project restored and improved the statue in time for its 100th birthday in 1986, marked by a four-day extravaganza.
Sept. 11 wasn't the first foreign attack to foil the statue's visitors. For 30 years, Lady Liberty's 29-foot torch was accessible via service ladder. But early on the morning of July 30, 1916, as World War I raged in Europe, German agents attacked a waterfront munitions depot in nearby Jersey City, N.J., triggering a massive explosion that caused the equivalent of more than $2 million in damage to the statue. The torch never re-opened.
It wasn't always clear the statue's crown would one day re-open, either. The monument's designers never intended to have visitors inside, and the hot interior meets no fire codes and offers no emergency exit other than a single steep, vertigo-inducing staircase. But in the years since Sept. 11, New York's political leaders pushed relentlessly to open the crown and its 25 windows to the public. "It probably isn't completely safe to have everyone go up, in any numbers, at any time," Rep. Anthony Weiner conceded to the New York Times earlier this year. "But the Park Service is full of slightly dangerous things you can do." The Obama administration agreed. Park Rangers will allow up to 10 people at a time inside the cramped crown area, with a goal of 30 per hour. Some 150,000 are expected to visit over the first two years, but after that, would-be statue scalers will again need to be patient, as Lady Liberty closes her doors again so that more renovations can be completed.