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The Statue of Liberty’s Original Torch Gets a New Home

The torch, which was replaced in the 1980s, has been moved to a new museum on Liberty Island

(Peter Arnott/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

In 1985, after enduring nearly a century of wear, tear and poorly executed renovations, the Statue of Liberty’s torch was swapped out for a new version. The original was put on display inside the statue’s pedestal, where it could be seen by ticketed guests. Now, following an ambitious relocation plan, Lady Liberty’s flame has been moved once again.

As Sarah Cascone reports for artnet News, the fiery accessory now sits in the as-yet-unfinished Statue of Liberty Museum, which is scheduled to open in May 2019. The museum will be accessible to all visitors to the island, meaning that a wider audience will have an opportunity to appreciate the torch’s majesty.

Getting the torch to its new home was no small feat. This single portion of the statue is 16 feet tall, 12 feet wide and weighs 3,600 pounds, according to Helene Stapinski of the New York Times. Working after visitors left Liberty Island and into the night, a team dismantled the statue into two pieces. The flame and its tube were lifted outside by a crane, while the base was flipped on its side and pulled through the doors on neoprene skates. The fragments were driven to the museum on a hydraulically stabilized transporter vehicle, to make sure they stayed safe during the bumpy drive across the island. Finally, a crane lowered the pieces into the new museum, through gaps that will become windows once the building is complete.

“The issue here is it’s a precious treasure for our country,” Doug Phelps, president of the Phelps Construction Group, which is building the museum, tells Stapinski. “This is not the most difficult thing we’ve ever moved. But certainly it’s the most important.”

The relocation marks a new chapter in the history of one of Lady Liberty’s most iconic features. In 1885, the torch was shipped from France to the United States, one piece of a towering gift that was meant to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Under the direction of Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the French sculptor who designed the statue, the torch had been given a copper flame that was intended to be illuminated by external lights installed underneath it.

But in the fall of 1886, just before the statue was dedicated in front of thousands of spectators, the U.S. Lighthouse Board decided to install nine arc lights inside the flame, instead, cutting portholes into the copper so the light could shine directly out of the flame. The final effect, however, was underwhelming, according to Cara Sutherland’s history of the Statue of Liberty for the Museum of the City of New York.

More ill-advised cosmetic adjustments were made in 1916, following the Black Tom explosion, a German attack on an island in the New York Harbor, where WWI munitions were being stored. Previously, select visitors had been granted permission to climb into the torch, but in the wake of the attack, the military closed the torch down, which had been badly weakened after being pummeled by debris from the incident.

In the aftermath of the incident, Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum stepped in to give the torch a “major design overhaul,” according to Southerland. Borglum’s revamp removed much of the flame’s copper and replaced it with amber-colored glass. But the glass panes leaked each time it rained, causing damage to the statue’s arm.

After the torch was replaced in the 1980s, the original was sent on a country-wide tour, and then put on display inside the statue’s pedestal. Now, having spent more than three decades at Lady Liberty’s feet, it will form the centerpiece of the new 26,000-square-foot museum. The original may not be as sparkly as its successor, which is lined with 24-karat gold leaf gilding, but it continues to shine after decades spent in the outstretched arm of one of the nation’s most important artworks.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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