The great harbor of New York and the grand lady who guards it are, after Ground Zero and the Empire State Building, the city’s top must-visit attractions. You’ll follow in the footsteps of the millions of immigrants and visitors who came here before you, their way lighted by the torch and the promise inscribed on the statue’s base: that the “teeming masses yearning to breathe free” would find succor, freedom from persecution, and economic opportunity in this new land.
You will have a fine view of Lady Liberty from the shores of Battery Park, but planning ahead to take the ferry out to the island and visit the interior of the statue rewards the effort. Please do understand that if you don’t make advance reservations, you’ll likely only get to visit the new-in-2019 onsite museum— which is better than nothing, but not as thrilling as climbing the interior of the statue. Some 3,000 visitors get to go into the statue each day, but on many days, nearly 15,000 show up and have to be turned away. This is the major New York site that you really do have to plan ahead for, as often capacity doesn’t keep up with demand. So put down this book and make your reservation now for a date and time slot. Most visitors who reserve ahead will be able to visit the statue’s pedestal, which offers a splendid view of New York City. Very limited numbers of visitors conclude that tour with a thrilling, exhausting climb up a circular stairway, 146 steps up to the crown of the statue. On the way up, you’ll view the intricate metal work that French engineer Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) created to anchor the statue; it acts like a spring, allowing the “skin” of the structure to adjust to different temperatures and sway up to 3 inches in 50-mph winds. To get a chance at the crown in 2020/2021, you’ll need to book at least 6 months in advance.
Those without tickets to the monument can take a ranger-led tour of the island and visit the new museum, which has a small but intriguing exhibit about the statue’s history and the extraordinary engineering that went into creating it. Note that the museum was designed for crowds, so exhibits are not chronological: If one area is too crowded, move to the next and circle back when the crowds thin. You won’t miss anything by doing so. The new museum features a terrific film about Lady Liberty (try to stand in the center of the room to hear better), and the original torch, which had to be replaced in 1983 because its glass panels leaked, causing water damage to the statue. But the museum isn’t reason itself to get off at Liberty Island. If your time is limited, the better option may be to simply stay on the ferry, which slows down as it approaches the statue, giving those onboard a good view of Lady Liberty in all of her surprisingly delicate beauty. Spend the time you’ll save to go on to Ellis Island, Liberty’s sister monument, with no entrance quotas. I think Ellis is ultimately the more rewarding of the two . . . unless you get to visit the crown of Lady Liberty (which is really, really fun).
Some background on Lady Liberty:
The French connection: Dreamed up at a dinner party of French intellectuals in 1865, the statue was first proposed as a 100th-birthday present from France to the U.S. (and as a not-so-subtle jab at France’s then-authoritarian Second Empire). Fundraising woes kept it from being completed in time for that anniversary, but in 1881, after over a decade of begging for money (a lottery finally did the trick), sculptor Auguste Bartholdi was able to finish the massive work.
The battle for the base: Though the statue was completed in 1881, it took another 2 years for the Americans to keep their half of the bargain and create a pedestal for it. Newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer finally stepped in, and in a series of angry editorials condemning the wealthy for not contributing, he convinced thousands of lower-income Americans to send in what they could to get the job done. Thanks to their dimes and nickels, the pedestal was finally built (designed by Richard Morris Hunt), and the statue was dedicated on October 28, 1886.
Crafting the Lady: Repousse, a technique of hammering and shaping thin strips of copper, was used to create Lady Liberty. Though the statue is massive at over 151 feet from base to torch, the “skin” of the piece is just [bf]3/32 of an inch thick. It is thought that the ancient Colossus of Rhodes was built using this method.
A key to the symbolism: Every piece of the statue has meaning. The seven rays in the crown represent the seven seas of the world, and the 25 windows there give a nod to the 25 gemstones found on Earth. On the tablet Liberty is holding are inscribed the Roman numerals for July 4, 1776. And though it’s difficult to see, Liberty is breaking shackles with her right foot.