Funds Being Sought To
L egend has it that ships coming into New York Harbor carrying some of the nearly 12 million immigrants who entered the United States between 1886 and 1954 always listed to port--all the passengers coming to the New World crowded the left rail to see the Statue of Liberty.
In May 1945 the statue’s uplifted torch surrounded by plumes of water spouting from city fireboats said "Welcome home" to a young American GI just released from a German prisoner of war camp. Austin Armitstead and his fellow repatriates were out of their bunks and on deck at the crack of dawn as their troopship came through the Narrows, entered New York Harbor and afforded them their first glimpse of the statue that symbolized their homeland.
Armitstead became a pastor in the United Methodist Church and in 1972 under church auspices welcomed an Albanian family 29 people strong to the United States. Armitstead was then assigned to a church in Staten Island and arranged for the family to take the Staten Island ferry to their new home. "I shall never forget their faces as Greek-speaking Americans pointed out the Statue of Liberty to the new arrivals and explained its meaning," Armitstead, who today serves as Gazette community liaison and Roving Photographer, declared.
Today, anyone aspiring to visit the statue will find him- or herself in a "look but don’t touch" situation. The statue has been closed to visitors since Sept. 11, 2001, although the 58-acre grounds of the monument on Liberty Island, where the statue was erected and where it still stands, reopened some three months later. Since the statue closed after September 11, the number of sightseers boarding Circle Line boats to the statue and Ellis Island has declined by about 45 percent, from a peak of 4.4 million in 2000 to 2.5 million in 2002.
Heightened security concerns mean the visitors must pass through airport-style metal detectors before boarding the boats, which are inspected by bomb-sniffing dogs before the first cruise of each day casts off. As for the statue itself, before the National Park Service, which cares for and maintains the statue, can consider reopening the monument, additional safety and security measures must be put in place.
The foremost concern is egress, according to Stephen Briganti, president of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. Only one of two sets of doors was used to let tourists in and out of the statue, so more doors may need to be carved into the statue’s base-sure to irk some preservationists, Briganti admitted. The statue’s fire and emergency notification systems also require upgrading. The earliest the statue could be expected to reopen is the end of this year, as work has not yet begun
Under the new plans, which have yet to be approved by the National Park Service, it is probable that tourists would still have access to the museum in the statue’s base and the top of the 10-story pedestal, where they would be able to see panoramic views of New York Harbor. They would be able to view the statue’s interior framework, which was designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, whose namesake tower symbolizes Paris, but would no longer be able to ascend to the crown. The narrow, steep spiral staircase inside the statue was never meant to accommodate visitors to begin with; only workers would be allowed to climb the 354 interior steps.
Besides safety and security, the remaining major factor determining whether the statue reopens is the money necessary to finance these improvements. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation is seeking $5 million in private donations to pay for safety and security improvements that would enable the reopening of the statue, a goal that would seem to be within reach. Last November Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a nationwide fund-raising campaign. American Express pledged at least $3 million in January and the makers of Folgers Coffee offered another $1 million. Martin Scorsese, noted film director, produced and narrated an original hour-long documentary, "Lady by the Sea: the Statue of Liberty," that aired on The History Channel and spearheaded a fundraising drive. On January 10 the Daily News pledged $100,000 and encouraged readers to contribute what they could.
Contributions may be sent to The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation (SOLEIF), 292 Madison Ave., 14th Floor, New York, New York 10017.
Reverend Austin H. Armitstead contributed to this article.