Celebrating the Immigrant: An Administrative History
NPS Arrowhead Logo


Preparations for the 100th anniversaries of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island may be said to have started as early as 1979, when the National Park Service created the planning team captained by Michael Adlerstein. That group explored possible management and development alternatives not only for Ellis Island, but for the Statue of Liberty and the American Museum of Immigration as well. In its December 1980 Analysis of Alternatives, the team suggested that the summer visitor's long wait to climb to the statue's crown and the uncomfortable crowding in the monument's interior might be alleviated by instituting early-warning and numbered-ticket systems. Signs erected near the boat-ticket booths at the Battery in Manhattan and Liberty State Park in New Jersey would advise people about to purchase tickets for the trip of the current waiting time for the walk to the crown. The message on the signs could be continually adjusted as conditions changed. Arriving on Liberty Island, the visitor would obtain a numbered ticket enabling him/her to estimate the time at which to start up the stairs; until then the person would be free to explore other attractions, such as the museum of immigration. [1]

The team also offered proposals concerning the museum. In its ability to do justice to the story of immigration, the AMI had always been handicapped by space limitations in the third floor exhibit area within the statue's base. To "increase the visibility of the museum and create additional opportunities for visitors to learn about the history of American immigration," the team recommended that operation of the museum at the statue should continue, but the AMI should also expand to appropriate spots on Ellis Island as that facility was rehabilitated. Room on Ellis could be devoted to AMI administrative offices, research activities, storage and conservation of artifacts, program preparation, and mounting of additional exhibits. The team also considered expansion of the museum to a mainland site (such as Castle Clinton) as a second, though less desirable alternative.

As far as access to the Statue of Liberty National Monument was concerned, the Analysis of Alternatives recommended that year-round ferry service be provided to both Liberty and Ellis Islands from terminals in Manhattan and Jersey City. Additionally, a shuttle boat between the two islands should operate approximately every thirty minutes. [2]

The planning team did not, however, deal with one topic of importance: the physical condition of the lady in the harbor. Park officials, from their own observations, were aware that the interior facilities of the Statue of Liberty needed repair and modernization. Across the Atlantic, Philippe Vallery-Radot, a French national, while watching the repair of the statue of Vercingetorix, was reminded of another metal structure, which had been standing on Liberty Island for nearly a century. Later, when he learned that the monument required internal work, he resolved to make restoration a Franco-American project. In February 1981, French representatives for Vallery-Radot presented his ideas to Russell E. Dickenson, director of the NPS, and in May, a French-American Committee was formed. The committee defined its goals as follows: to take necessary actions to restore the statue, to install in the statue's pedestal a museum dedicated to Franco-American friendship, to help prepare the monument's centennial celebration, and after the centennial, to continue furthering Franco-American cultural relations.

The Department of the Interior formally recognized a working relationship with the French-American Committee for the Restoration of the Statue of Liberty, on May 26, 1981, when Russell Dickenson, for the NPS, and Philippe Vallery-Radot, Vera Laure Vallery-Radot, and Jacques De Broissia, trustees of the committee, signed a memorandum of agreement. According to its terms, the committee would not only "assist in the restoration and preservation of the Statue of Liberty as a historical resource," but would also "engage in fundraising and receive philanthropic contributions." Any money it donated, the NPS would place in a special Statue of Liberty account and would use solely for work on the monument or for the conduct of programs and activities at or on behalf of the statue. The following month, the French-American Committee incorporated as a non-profit, fund-raising body under the statutes of the State of New York. [3]

At the time the NPS and the French-American Committee signed their memorandum of agreement, representatives of the committee proposed hiring a team of architects and engineers to prepare a preliminary technical report on the condition of the statue and what work needed to be done on it. The committee engaged a group of four architects and engineers (Philippe Granjean, Jean Levron, Pierre Tissier, and Jacques Moutard), who visited Liberty Island in May 1981 and again in June, October, and December, as well as in March 1982. They worked closely with NPS Regional Historical Architect Blaine Cliver, and by December 1981 had turned out a study entitled French Technical Report on Restoring the Statue of Liberty: Preliminary Findings. The team presented its conclusions and proposals to the NPS at a meeting in Washington on December 17, 1981, and these were further reviewed in joint discussions between the French-American Committee and the Park Service on March 5, 1982, also in the capital. [4]

The technical report began with an assessment of the condition of the monument. It stated that the "backbone" of the statue's skeleton, the central pylon, consisting of four I-shaped girders, braced with cross-beams and cross-braces, seemed to be in excellent shape. The frame, made up of flat bars running from the pylon girders to the armature, and the rest platforms attached to them, presented a less favorable appearance. While most of these flat bars exhibited little evidence of corrosion, they had been "affected by warping and buckling." If that condition were not corrected, the team predicted, it could eventually lead to sagging and deformation of the statue. Corrosion had set in at two locations on the frame: the rest platform at the head level and the torch-bearing right arm. (These conditions were clearly visible and had already been noticed by staff at the Park.) The connection of this arm's frame with the central pylon showed definite signs of strain, requiring repair. Because of the torch's design and its poor condition, rain had been infiltrating the extended arm, producing "severe corrosion" in the frame there, especially where the hand holds the torch. The French investigators also found some corroded girders among the cross-network or lattice of these between the top of the pedestal and the bottom of the central pylon.

Working from the core of the monument outward, the engineers next encountered the armature, 750 horizontal and 600 vertical flat iron ribs or bands. These come between the frame and the copper sheets of the skin or envelope, to which they are attached by 1,500 saddles. The technical investigators discovered that the insulation originally installed to prevent the iron ribs from touching the copper sheets had disappeared and the contact between the two metals had produced rusting and decomposition. They warned that the corroded iron bands had to be replaced with new ribs made of a metal that does not react with copper, such as stainless steel and/or copper.

Continuing on to the monument's outside surface, the team observed that the copper skin or envelope appeared to be in good condition, although they recommended further studies to confirm or contradict their judgment. They did, however, note one critical exception. The copper sheathing in the statue's torch had grown dangerously thin after decades of exposure to rain and pollution. Indeed, the torch was in such a bad state that they doubted it could be stabilized. "It may have to be taken down and replaced in order to avoid any possible accident," the French engineers counseled.

The stairway within the monument the team declared unacceptable as well. It was too narrow and steep to meet present standards for public safety and comfort. Surrounded by wire mesh, overcrowded and too hot much of the time, it also did not give the climber much chance "to appreciate from the inside the work of Bartholdi and Eiffel."

After these preliminary observations, recommendations were made. Priority should be given to restoring the armature, replacing the torch, and repairing the connection between the frame of the right arm and the pylon. Next, the Park Service should partially repair the frame and the platforms. Laboratory tests on the copper skin (outside and in) should be conducted to determine if any treatment was required, and missing rivets and/or deteriorated copper sheets should be replaced. The team also advised cleaning the paint off the central pylon to make sure no hidden cracks existed underneath.

When it came to modernizing the stairway, the report offered alternative proposals "A" and "B." The "A" plan called for constructing a straight, double-flight stair case outside the central pylon, thus providing the visitor with a "panoramic view of the statue's interior." Two transparent, hydraulic elevators would be installed inside the pylon for security purposes and to give access to handicapped persons. Four intermediate platforms would give climbers a chance to rest or switch from up to down staircase, and serve as elevator stops. This scheme would necessitate remodeling much of the existing frame. The "B" proposal was more modest. A new, widened circular stairway inside the central pylon would replace the old, unsafe and uncomfortable one.

The French engineers agreed with the NPS that something had to be done about overcrowding inside the monument. Rather than a system of warning signs and numbered tickets, their report recommended that an electronic, rotating turnstile be used to regulate admissions. An electronic meter would automatically lock a gate when the capacity number had entered. This same device would start up a ventilation system inside the statue. The team also advised installing metal detectors to enhance security of the monument.

Impressed with the preliminary technical report, in March 1982 NPS Director Dickenson requested that the French-American Committee have the same team of French engineers and architects undertake a detailed feasibility study of the restoration and modernization work. The committee and the team agreed. [5]

Even before the group had proceeded very far with its assignment, the Park Service realized that the repairs would cost at least $20 million. [6] It was unlikely that the French-American Committee could raise such a sum by itself. The 1980 Analysis of Alternatives had endorsed, in addition, a rehabilitation plan for Ellis Island that would require $54,000,000. The prospect that the Ellis Island Restoration Commission, Inc., could provide that money was also doubtful. Where, then, could the NPS find the funds for fixing up both sites in time for their respective centennials in 1986 and 1992?

Given the political climate in Washington, large congressional appropriations appeared out of the question. By 1982, the administration of President Ronald Reagan was attempting a wholesale cutback on domestic spending generally and actively pushing the idea that reductions in federal financing would be compensated for by increased private sector contributions to the arts, science, culture and welfare. In line with this new direction, the President and Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt announced in May 1982 the formation of a 21-member Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Centennial Commission. It would be chaired by Lee Iacocca, head of the Chrysler Corporation, whose parents had entered the United States through Ellis, and whose contacts with the business world were looked upon as a valuable asset. The commission was to serve as "an umbrella group coordinating private activities on behalf of both installations"; the French-American Committee and the Ellis Island Restoration Commission, Inc., became two of its constituent parts. [7] The new umbrella group would seek "to raise as much as $100 million from private sources" for restoration of both sites in time for their centennials. Further, members of the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Commission would "advise the Secretary on preservation needs, the projected use of facilities and the programs associated with the upcoming centennials." The commission members would serve two-year terms, and the organization was expected to live on through 1992. [8]

Optimistic about the fund-raising capabilities of the commission, the NPS prepared a General Management Plan for the Statue of Liberty National Monument that outlined what it intended to do on each island. Michael Adlerstein, who had led the group which drew up the earlier Analysis of Alternatives for the General Mangement Plan, headed the planning team that wrote the 1982 document as well. [9]

The existence of the Iacocca Commission and of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1980 led the planners to adopt a scheme for Ellis Island that was rather different from the preferred alternative of the 1980 Analysis. The General Management Plan endorsed preserving the entire Ellis complex and returning its thirty-three buildings "to active life by devoting major historic structures to public use and interpretation and by making the contributing structures available for adaptive use." The document also envisioned preserving thousands of artifacts "that are extant on Ellis Island and those that have been donated by families of immigrants to develop a collection that will record and convey the Ellis Island story." These ambitious plans would cost anywhere between $88,000,000 and $121,800,000.

The document went on to spell out the details. With funds raised by the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Centennial Commission the NPS would preserve and interpret "all of the spaces that are most closely associated with the immigrants' experiences":

the baggage room, the registry room, and the original dormitories (on the first, second, and third floors in the core of the main building), one of the rooms used by the social service agencies (on the first floor of the west wing), one of the legal inquiry rooms (on the second floor of the west wing), the later dormitory/detention rooms (on the second floor of the kitchen and laundry building), and the railroad ticket office (adjoining the first floor of the main building).

These spaces would, of course, be open to the public. The rest of the main building would be adapted by the NPS for visitor support services and staff work space.

Also utilizing whatever monies the commission might provide, the NPS would preserve the exteriors of as many buildings as possible, while the interiors would be adapted for use either by the Park Service or private organizations under a lease agreement or concession contract. Private tenants might also engage in exterior preservation treatment on buildings that were not essential to historic interpretation. The NPS would rehabilitate the grounds around the main immigration building, and the leaseholders around the areas adapted for their use. To test possible interest among private parties, the NPS placed press advertisements in December 1981 seeking proposals from potential tenants and concessionaires and received some responses.

The General Management Plan was approved by Herbert S. Cables, Jr., director of the North Atlantic Region, in September 1982, but National Park Service Director Dickenson withheld his approval. No leases with private organizations were signed, at the request of Lee Iacocca and other commission members, who wanted more time to study the question of which spaces should be leased and which interpreted by the NPS.

In June 1982, the NPS did adopt an interpretive prospectus for Ellis Island which had been prepared by the Harpers Ferry Center. The prospectus stated the purpose of interpretation was "to capture the essence of the immigrant processing experience...," as well as objectively presenting "Ellis Island as a benevolent institution with the best interest of the immigrants at heart, despite some instances of corruption and abuse." Additional issues to be treated included what "promoted massive immigration to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries" and "the changes of American immigration policy and administration, and their impact on Ellis Island." Eventually NPS guides would also discuss the physical development of the site from military facility to immigration station, and its later use as a World War II detention center and then Coast Guard installation. [10]

When it dealt with the Statue of Liberty, the 1982 General Management Plan followed closely the preferred alternatives listed in the 1980 Analysis of Alternatives. The 1982 document again recommended instituting an early-warning and numbered-ticket arrangement to alleviate crowding on the monument's stairways. The plan, in addition, recognized and pledged to continue the work already initiated by the French-American Committee:

A study will be conducted to evaluate the structural requirements for the internal system and the skin [of the statue], and also the connections between the two systems. A concurrent study will be conducted to evaluate ways of improving access to the crown. Improved elevator technology as well as new configurations for the stairway will be explored to see if it is possible to improve access to the crown without significantly impacting the historic fabric of the statue or incurring undue cost.

The General Management Plan also continued along the lines of the earlier Analysis of Alternatives in its discussion of transportation to the two islands but filled in specific details. It stated that by the spring of 1986 shuttle service between Liberty and Ellis Islands would begin, with a boat designed for 200 to 400 passengers, operating between the north dock on Liberty Island and the cove at Ellis approximately every thirty minutes. By 1992, with preservation work presumably completed at Ellis, year-round boat service to both islands from Manhattan and Liberty State Park in New Jersey, as well as some combined-loop trips, would be instituted. As visitation increased, especially to Ellis, the ferry fleet would be expanded to six vessels, from its current four. The ultimate objective would be a ferry schedule and an increased fleet capable of delivering 2,000 passengers per hour to Liberty Island and 1,200 to Ellis. [11]

On one issue discussed in the Analysis, future development of the American Museum of Immigration, the General Management Plan said nothing. The earlier document had pointed out that the museum's space for exhibits, collection storage, curatorial activities, research, and administration was cramped and inadequate. As a preferred alternative, the 1980 Analysis had suggested expanding AMI functions to Ellis "as appropriate sections of the island are rehabilitated" (Fig. 7). The study had also mentioned possible expansion to a Manhattan site, such as Castle Clinton, but pointed out that a mainland facility would require costly development, while large available space in historic buildings on Ellis went unoccupied.

During the period of public review of the Analysis of Alternatives, the majority of individuals who commented on the report supported the expansion to Ellis. The American Museum of Immigration, Inc., apparently still fearing Ellis as an unwelcome rival to their museum, favored instead moving additional AMI functions to Castle Clinton. By 1982-83, some members of the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Commission and a group of historians that the Park Service consulted at a meeting at the Harpers Ferry Center were suggesting that the entire museum of immigration be redesigned, expanded, and moved to Ellis Island. [12] Since no consensus yet existed on this issue (as of 1982), the team which prepared the General Management Plan chose not to discuss the American Museum of Immigration. It did indicate on diagrams, however, space allocations in the main building on Ellis for museum storage, laboratories, and an oral history and immigrant library. [13]

By the end of 1982, then, planning for the centennial of the Statue of Liberty and of Ellis Island was well underway. How much could be preserved and in what fashion on Ellis Island and how thoroughly the lady in the harbor could be structurally repaired and internally modernized depended, of course, on the success of the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Centennial Commission in its private fund-raising effort. That drive was just beginning in 1983.

In nearly one hundred years the story of the colossal monument seemed to have come full cycle. Whereas in the 1880s French and American private citizens had collected donations to build the statue and its pedestal, in the 1980s American and Frenchmen once again joined hands to underwrite repair, rehabilitation and development of the lady with the torch and the former immigration station, so that they could continue into the 21st century to greet and inspire millions of visitors from all lands. If these private efforts fell short of the mark, as happened in the building of the AMI, would the government of the United States recognize the unique historic importance of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and appropriate adequate public resources to finish the worthy undertaking?

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 24-Sep-2001