Out of all of America's symbols, none has proved more enduring or evocative than the Statue of Liberty. This giant figure, torch in hand and clutching a stone tablet, has for a century acted as a figurehead for the American Dream; indeed there is probably no more immediately recognizable profile in existence. It's worth remembering that the statue is - for Americans at least - a potent reminder that the USA is a land of immigrants: it was New York Harbor where the first big waves of European immigrants arrived, their ships entering through the Verrazano Narrows to round the bend of the bay and catch a first glimpse of "Liberty Enlightening the World" - an end of their journey into the unknown, and the symbolic beginning of a new life.
These days, although only the very wealthy can afford to arrive here by sea, and a would-be immigrant's first (and possibly last) view of the States is more likely to be the customs check at JFK Airport, Liberty remains a stirring sight, with Emma Lazarus's poem, The New Colossus, written originally to raise funds for the statue's base, no less quotable than when it was written...
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 to your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
The statue, which depicts Liberty throwing off her shackles and holding a beacon to light the world, was the creation of the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who crafted it a hundred years after the American Revolution in recognition of solidarity between the French and American people (though it's fair to add that Bartholdi originally intended the statue for Alexandria in Egypt). Bartholdi built Liberty in Paris between 1874 and 1884, starting with a terracotta model and enlarging it through four successive versions to its present size, a construction of thin copper sheets bolted together and supported by an iron framework designed by Gustave Eiffel. The arm carrying the torch was exhibited in Madison Square Park for seven years, but the whole statue wasn't officially accepted on behalf of the American people until 1884, after which it was taken apart, crated up and shipped to New York.
It was to be another two years before it could be properly unveiled: money had to be collected to fund the construction of the base, and for some reason Americans were unwilling - or unable - to dip into their pockets. Only through the campaigning efforts of newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer, a keen supporter of the statue, did it all come together in the end. Richard Morris Hunt built a pedestal around the existing star-shaped Fort Wood, and Liberty was formally dedicated by President Cleveland on October 28, 1886, in a flag-waving shindig that has never really stopped. The statue was closed for a few years in the mid-1980s for extensive renovation and, in 1986, fifteen million people descended on Manhattan for the statue's centennial celebrations.
Today you can climb steps up to the crown, but the cramped stairway though the torch sadly remains closed to the public. Don't be surprised if there's an hour-long wait to ascend. Even if there is, Liberty Park's views of the lower Manhattan skyline, the twin towers of the World Trade Center lording it over the jutting teeth of New York's financial quarter, are spectacular enough.