The Journal Gazette
 
 
Thursday, March 26, 2020 1:00 am

Miss Liberty comes down from her perch

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

Steeplejack. That was a new word for me as I gathered material for today's column.

It's a person whose work is to build or work on smokestacks, towers or steeples. (Is a groundjack a thing? I don't love heights, and I sure wouldn't be climbing up on a steeple. But I digress.)

On Sept. 27, 1947, steeplejack Joe Miller of Wabash supervised a team of men who removed the statue “Miss Liberty” from its perch atop the Allen County Courthouse. The project took nearly 11 hours as it was removed from the dome and slowly lowered on a cable to a truck parked on Court Street, an area that is now part of the Courthouse Green.

It was the first time the copper statue – around 13 feet tall – had been removed from the courthouse since its installation 47 years earlier. It was constructed as a weather vane.

City building experts had decided “she” was a hazard because of her weather-worn condition. In the days following its removal, the statue was given a “physical examination” to determine what repairs were necessary – a process officials said was impossible before it came down.

Bystanders watched as the statue was lowered. After it was finally placed in the truck, one woman observed, “She's a dirty thing. She hasn't had a bath in years,” according to a story by Bruce Hunt in The Journal Gazette the next day.

The cost of the removal and eventual replacement was more than $2,500. That's somewhere near $30,000 today, adjusted for inflation. Equipped with new underpinning and shaft, the statue was restored to its position atop the dome Nov. 20, 1947.

Over the years, various repairs were made to the works that allowed the statue to act as a weather vane. In the 1960s, the sword Miss Liberty held in her left hand fell to the roof. According to a 1996 Journal Gazette story by Nancy Vendrely, the sword was stored in the basement but later disappeared. It was replaced in 1994, but positioned differently from what is seen in photos from the 1930s and '40s. In the photos, the sword pointed up; the replacement pointed down.

The statue was removed in 1995 ahead of a five-month restoration project that repaired damage to its left hand, right wing and left foot. After repairs, including restoring three fingers that had fallen off and fixing what appeared to be bullet holes, she was placed on the first floor of the courthouse while the building was undergoing repairs.

Miss Liberty was returned to the courthouse dome in April 2001 – sword pointing up.

History Journal appears monthly in print with additional items weekly on The Journal Gazette's website. To comment on items or suggest dates and topics, contact Corey McMaken at 461-8475 or cmcmaken@jg.net.

 

--

“Courthouse Lady Lowered For Overhauling Job,” by Bruce Hunt (Sept. 28, 1947)

A woman can cause six men a lot of trouble -- especially if she's 12 feet, eight inches tall, weighs 800 pounds and stands firmly on the dome of a courthouse.

Five workers of the Martin Wrecking Company, working under the supervision of Joe Miller, steeplejack from Wabash, found that out yesterday.

“Miss Liberty” hesitantly allowed herself to be lowered from her pinnacle atop the Allen County Courthouse for needed repairs. The operation, which began at 8 a.m. yesterday, was not completed until the copper lady was lowered to a truck at 6:57 p.m. From all appearances she had not a scar to show for her stubborn descent from her lofty perch.

The lengthy job was polished off smoothly, but only after hours of preparation. A ginpole was lashed in an upright position next to the statue. The main delay occurred when it was found necessary to sever “Miss Liberty's” supporting shaft. When this was finally completed, she was lowered slowly earthward on a cable to a truck parked on Court Street near Berry Street.

Scores of bystanders watched The Lady come down in her first descent since her installation 47 years ago. Court Street was blocked off as a safety precaution. Ropes and red flags warned people away from the rotunda inside the courthouse.

Cost of the tedious job to the county was more than $2,500 for removal and replacement after the familiar feminine figure is repaired. It is estimated that repairs will cost in the neighborhood of $400, although this cannot be determined until after a complete “physical examination.” A close inspection survey on what repairs are necessary was impossible beforehand, officials said, because of “Miss Liberty's” altitude and position.

Bystanders waited patiently watching every move of the “tiny” workers scampering around the Courthouse pinnacle. When the job was finally completed and Miss Allen County stately laid on her back in the truck, several side remarks were audible from the crowd.

“She's a dirty thing. She hasn't had a bath in years,” one observing woman bluntly exclaimed.

Steepleworker Joe Miller, hired especially for this job, conceded that it wasn't easy. He said some companies were afraid to tackle such a task, but he himself shrugged it off by insisting, “It's just another job.”

--

“Miss Liberty Gets A Makeover,” by Nancy Vendrely (April 23, 1996)

Miss Liberty has had her ups and downs, but she finally is getting some badly needed attention.

Ironically, though standing above the Allen County Courthouse dome for more than 95 years, she has been overshadowed by the beauty of the building below. If three of her fingers hadn't fallen off last November, she might still be taking a back seat to the current restoration of the courthouse murals.

But the prospect of losing her, piece by piece, and the possibility of someone being hurt prompted action on the part of the Allen County Commissioners. Miss Liberty was taken down for repairs and none too soon. Copper rivets holding the statue to its interior steel frame had corroded the metal, through the process of electrolysis, and more serious deterioration was only a matter of time.

Tom Sample and Tom Creigh, owners of WPC Roofing and Sheet Metal, are repairing Miss Liberty. Sample says when she was made there was no stainless steel, so the inside frame to which the sculpture is attached is decomposing at all points where the copper rivets are attached.

The rivets in her cape are particularly bad. The men will take them out and replace them with stainless steel rivets on copper stems.

They are redoing every seam – and there are many in the 13-foot-8-inch copper statue.

“You have to clean it down to the bare copper to make a proper joint,” Sample says.

Past repairs left big chunks of solder on her lovely green patina and some seams were filled with caulking. All of that has to be carefully removed before new solder can be applied. They also will reattach the fingers that broke off.

“We are not making any new pieces,” Sample says. “We're doing what we know how to do. She was made by artists and coppersmiths – that's not what we do.”

There's another repair they hadn't counted on. Numerous bullet holes have to be filled. There are several around her feet and others here and there on her body. Sample says many of holes indicate there was a direct line of entry from a similar height.

How can they be sure they're bullet holes?

“Tom and I are both hunters,” Sample says, “and we've done our share of shooting. We know a bullet hole when we see one.”

Sadly, Miss Liberty has suffered other indignities.

Constructed as a weather vane, at times she has been jammed up by rust and pigeon droppings in the ball bearings on which she pivots. Stopped from moving, though her trailing right foot and her billowing cape were designed to catch the wind, she stood inert but filled with tension as sometimes extreme downtown winds swept over her.

Sample believes that contributed to her deteriorating condition because it put more stress on her than she was designed to withstand.

The first time Miss Liberty came down from her perch was 1947. Part of her interior frame was replaced with stainless steel and a new shaft was installed on the lantern where she stands.

When Miss Liberty was returned, she was bolted down and did not rotate for many years, until someone recognized that the resulting vibrations in the dome were causing masonry erosion inside the courthouse. In 1961, the bearings in the swivel section were filled with graphite, Liberty was unbolted and again began moving with the wind until pigeon droppings gummed up the works in the 1970s. In 1979, Sample and Creigh cleaned that mess out and put in stainless steel bearings and a screen to keep the pigeons out.

In the late 1960s, the sword in Miss Liberty's left hand fell to the roof. It was placed in the basement of the courthouse and disappeared sometime later.

Charles Knox, an artist who wants to see Miss Liberty restored and better appreciated, heard one version of what might have happened to the sword. A friend of his, who has since died, worked with a crew cleaning out the courthouse basement when remodeling of the building was in progress in the late 1970s.

“He said there was a lot of old stuff down there – old light fixtures and other things,” Knox says. “They were told to take the stuff down the tunnel and dump it. Then the tunnel was sealed up. The sword could be in there.”

The tunnel referred to could have been the small tunnel which extended from the basement of the courthouse up Calhoun Street to a power station north of the old Allen County Jail. Pipes and wires for heating and lighting the courthouse ran through the tunnel. There also were access holes in the street along the route.

The sword is the object of some concern at this point. Though it was replaced in 1994, it was positioned with its blade pointing down and out, which is not the position shown in early photographs.

When Miss Liberty was taken down in 1947, a Journal Gazette photo showed the sword pointing upward, its blade resting along her left arm. In photos from 1930, the sword is clearly pointing upward. Those photos, which are in the Allen County Public Library's historic collection, were taken from the then-new Lincoln Tower, and the photographers noted it was the first time Miss Liberty could be viewed from that high vantage point.

Historic preservationist Craig Leonard says in the original drawings for the courthouse, which are in the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Museum, Miss Liberty is shown in silhouette with the sword pointing out and down. But, he says, they are “presentation drawings” and buildings can, and often do, differ in a number of ways when actually constructed.

Architect George Bachnivsky of MSKTD & Associates says the sword originally may have been placed in the hand pointing down, but “because of the extreme winds up there,” turned around at some point to rest on Miss Liberty's arm.

“The only early photos I've seen, it is in the up position,” Bachnivsky says. “I'm leaning toward putting it back in the upward position because it can be fastened in two locations. In the downward position, there's only one place to fasten it. Up is the most logical for future preservation, but if we find evidence it was in the down position (originally), we'll try to find a way to secure it.”

He says it is too soon to decide – more information is needed.

Sample believes the sword originally pointed down, not only because the original courthouse specifications show it that way, but because there are pieces of solder on her left arm indicating to him that it was turned upward at some later time and attached with solder.

Whether the artist's original sword position ever can be determined absolutely may be doubtful. Very little is known about Miss Liberty. The preservationists haven't yet discovered where she was made or who made her, though she might have been made in Ohio and she could have been made by the man who did the other courthouse sculptures – Robert J. Staack.

Sample and Creigh have found nothing on or inside the statue that gives a clue to her maker.

It shouldn't be surprising. Even with all the pomp and circumstance that surrounded the dedication of the courthouse on Sept. 23, 1902, Miss Liberty barely rated a mention.

Newspapers had pages and pages of stories about the art and architecture of the building – they called it the “temple of justice” – but Miss Liberty was described only as “a revolving copper statue of Liberty holding her torch of enlightenment.” Her cost was reported at $1,000 and her weight at 800 pounds. (Sample and Creigh say it's more like 400 to 500 pounds.)

A famous orator of the time, the Hon. William Bourke Cockran of New York, was the keynote speaker at the afternoon dedication, but the big excitement was the impending visit of President Theodore Roosevelt. He was traveling by train through the Midwestern states and was scheduled to speak in evening ceremonies at the courthouse.

Like Miss Liberty, the role he almost played at the Allen County Courthouse doesn't get into most historical accounts.

Roosevelt was to come to Fort Wayne from an appearance in Indianapolis. But word came while Cockran was speaking that the president had been hospitalized. Injuries he received Sept. 2 in Pittsfield, Mass., when a trolley car collided with his carriage, were not thought to be serious. But when his leg became swollen in Indianapolis, doctors at St. Vincent's Hospital there examined him and found a small abscess. After an operation on his leg, Roosevelt ended his trip and returned to Washington.

Miss Liberty was removed from the courthouse at least one other time, in 1978, when a new lantern was built atop the dome. Architect Herman Strauss, whose firm did the work, recalls that he was advised to keep her location a secret.

“We hoisted it up to the ceiling of a warehouse somewhere in the city, but I can't remember where,” he says.

Before Miss Liberty returns to the top of the Allen County Courthouse sometime this summer, County Commissioner Jack McComb says she will be on display in the courthouse so people can get a close-up look.

“We've had so many people asking about the statue that we want them to have a chance to see it,” McComb says. “But it is not available now. They need time to work on her.”

Sample can't say when the work will be done.

“I would like to get it done in July, but it might be August,” he says.

Getting it done right is more important to him. Like the copper cladding he and Creigh put on the courthouse dome in 1994, he wants to be proud of Miss Liberty.

 


Sign up for our History Journal newsletter

Emails are sent on the last Thursday of the month

Share this article