In the documentary video about the restoration of the Statue of Liberty produced by CBS News in 1986, veteran newscaster Rolland Smith asks one of the ironworkers if he ever thought about the craftspeople who built the statue a hundred years earlier. “That’s one way of looking at it,” the worker said with a wide grin, “another way is that 100 years from now, the workers will be thinking about me.”
That focus on the workers doing the amazing restoration program was one of the most fascinating aspects of the documentary, which Rolland Smith brought to the May program of the Town of Lloyd Historical Preservation Society, held recently at the Vineyard Commons Theater in Highland. Smith made it clear that his work on the documentary was an important part of what he called his “fortunate career,” that allowed him to be a part of history covering topics as varied as the White House and the crater left by the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Introducing the video, Smith referred to it as her (Lady Liberty’s) story and the story of the people who loved her. “She is noble in spirit; her name, Liberty, is beautiful and precious. She is probably the most famous woman in the world.” Her story begins with a reminder that the statue was a gift from the French to the American people. That fact is reflected in the two teams of workers shown in the documentary attending to two major aspects of the restoration. A team of American craftspeople rebuilt the base that holds the statue, while a team of French artisans replaced the torch.
“The French team began working on the torch in the same way their ancestors did,” Smith says in the video. The tools they use are handmade. “Each precise, hammered strike echoes with an ancient skill handed down from generation to generation.” Smith, himself the author of books of poetry, shows that side of himself, as he says words in the video like, “The copper sheath takes form with each strike of the mallet, and an identity, a purpose seems to be imparted to the metal.”
The documentary also describes the rather tortured history of the torch itself. Several years after the statue was erected, someone decided it would be a good idea to cut big holes in it and put a lamp inside. That didn’t work, but the newly opened up torch did attract flocks of migrating birds. In just one night, 13,450 birds were killed. In 1915 a stained glass flame replaced the remains of the original one. That one didn’t hold up well either – at least not for 100 years. The new one, lit up brightly for the Statue’s Centennial celebration in 1986, features dramatic lighting designed by General Electric Corporation.
Despite having to completely redo the torch after 100 years, the people working on it were in awe of the original craftsmanship. “When we were working on it, we were completely amazed at the work done a century ago,” one worker said. “It was so great.”
Meanwhile the American team is shown rebuilding and stabilizing the base that holds the Lady. Originally the base was open, but over a century it became dangerously damaged by rainwater. The workers put in flanges to protect the base from water, allowing the water to drain away. They also added wind screening to give it more stability during high wind conditions. They replaced nearly every armature bar supporting the statue, each one of them different from the others.
“The noise, the sweat, the craftsmanship – all make a working poem that is restoring the Statue of Liberty,” Smith describes the action in the video. He calls it a “rhyme of pride” from the workers, who stress, “This doesn’t belong just to us. It belongs to everyone.”
You can’t get up close to the Lady – either in person or onscreen – without taking a good look at her face. History says that the sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, modeled the face on that of his mother. Her great, great, great granddaughter, Dorothy Franks, who lives in Idaho, met with Smith. In the video, she tells how people often comment on how much she looks like the statue. The pictures in the video lend credence to that impression.
Even the section of the documentary dedicated to the funding of the original statue and its restoration left the audience with warm, fuzzy feelings, by describing how much money was raised through nickel and dime donations by school children. The video shows a class of fifth graders from the United Nations School in New York, each child in national dress, singing in perfect harmony about the legacy of Lady Liberty.
Topping off the philosophical tone of the video is a reading of Emma Lazarus’s poem, The New Colossus, which is engraved on a metal plate inside the statue’s base:
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”
When the video finished, Town of Lloyd Historical Society president, Charles Glasner, surprised Rolland Smith by informing him that Robert Gould, son of the painter John Gould, had contacted the Society to say he would like to present Smith with a 30”x20” framed print of his father’s painting of the statue surrounded by boats in the New York Harbor. Gould asked TOLHPS to make the presentation as soon as the picture could be delivered to Highland. A date for the presentation has not yet been set. In the meantime, Gould sent a photograph of the picture, which Glasner gave Smith. It was then passed around for the audience to enjoy also.