The Statue of Liberty may be the Mother of Exiles, welcoming the huddled masses as they become Americans, but she’s not into, you know, intimacy. The approximately 1.2 million people who visit her every year can expect a "combination of vertigo and claustrophobia," says architect Michael J. Mills, FAIA, as they climb her double-helix staircases, navigate her tight archways, and bend to grasp handrails that weren’t built for today’s calorie-intensive countrymen. That's why, in time for Lady Liberty's 126th birthday on Oct. 28, Mills and the National Park Service have made the Statue of Liberty as open as her purpose intended.
On Sunday, the Statue reopened to the public after a year's hiatus—a period during which Mills and contractor Paul Natoli transformed her 145-foot pedestal. Visitors ascending into the statue can now climb two wider metal staircases, with glass enclosures for a feeling of greater visual transparency (the glass is not yet done) and added safety. Visitors can also egress through a new exterior stairway that uses the same Deer Island granite as the original pedestal. Making the job more challenging, Mills didn’t want to lose the original cross-beam girders that immediately identify the interior as the work of Gustave Eiffel. So Mills used lasers to scan and model the old interior pedestal, turning a 19th-century engineering marvel into pure 21st century data. The architect planned his modifications before contractor Natoli had thousands of pounds of steel barged over.
The result, says Park Service Ranger Dennis Mulligan, a Liberty Island veteran, is to "bring Bartholdi’s dream to fruition" after 126 years, a reference to sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who first imagined a copper giantess at the entranceway of New York Harbor. She'll get her first test as Hurricane Sandy rushes up from the south, but the steel tension rods Eiffel designed into the pedestal to absorb heavy winds won’t pose a danger. ("She’ll be rocking with Sandy," Mulligan concedes.) As the result of Mills’ $28 million renovation, the majority funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Park Service expects to accommodate an additional 26,000 "crownies"—its term for those with sufficient cardiovascular health to climb the 305 feet from the island to her crown. They’ll still be tired masses when they get there, but a lot less huddled.