National Treasure Lifts Off at Dawn

A historic moment as the Statue of Freedom takes summer vacation - a letter from Washington

NO one had seen the nation's majestic Capitol dome like this - without its famous Statue of Freedom - since President Lincoln trod the streets of Washington.

A waning half-moon hung over the Capitol in the pale dawn sky as a bright orange S-64F Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter, resembling a huge grasshopper, lifted the 14,985-pound statue gracefully from its historic perch yesterday.

Moments later, the bronze figure, which had remained bolted in place 270 feet high for 130 years, was quickly lowered to the ground in front of the Capitol's east side.

As it settled gently into place, thousands of onlookers, many of whom had waited in the pre-morning darkness, applauded and cheered.

The classical statue, with its large, inscrutible eyes, will for the first time be thoroughly cleaned, repaired, and coated to protect it from corrosion.

Cast in the early 1860s at a foundry near Washington, D.C., the statue is in good condition, despite all the years it has been exposed to the elements, specialists say.

Casting techniques in the 1800s, however, weren't what they are today.

Experts with the office of the Architect of the Capitol say a core sample of the bronze that they tested was filled with pockets of vaporized alloys. These have caused surface pitting.

The protective coatings, which will include acrylic lacquer and wax, should slow the deterioration.

Visitors to Washington will see the Capitol bare of its statue for the next five months. During that time, the restoration work will take place in an enclosure on the east Capitol grounds.

Removal of the statue was an "event" for Washingtonians, many of whom were up by 4 a.m. to see a team from Erickson Air-Crane Company of Central Point, Ore., and members of the Architect's staff detach the statue from its pedestal. Erickson charged $60,000 to remove the statue, and to put it back in the fall.

The early hour was selected because winds are usually calmer - a critical factor for the helicopter pilot, who had to keep his craft hovering directly over the statue for several minutes as workmen attached four cables to the bronze figure.

Excitement infected even some members of Congress, who stood with the public to watch the removal.

Among those spotted among the crowds were House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio, Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming, and Rep. Wayne Allard (R) of Colorado.

Dozens of reporters were there to cover the event, many admitting that they volunteered for the assignment so they could be present for what they considered to be a historic moment.

As the gawky helicopter's six huge rotors lowered the statue, winds whipped up with great force, blowing dirt and debris over spectators, and knocking over some television equipment.

The statue, which was placed on the Capitol in December 1863 at the height of the Civil War, is the work of Thomas Crawford. Standing 19-feet, 6-inches tall, it is a classical female figure with flowing draperies.

The woman's right hand rests on a sheathed sword. Her left holds a shield of the United States with 13 stripes for the original 13 colonies, and a laurel wreath of victory.

On her head is a crested Roman helmet, which was a compromise in the original design. Mr. Crawford had proposed a liberty cap, symbol of freed slaves, but he changed it after objections from then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.

Crawford made a plaster cast of the statue at his studio in Rome, but he died before the cast was shipped to the United States.

Cost of the renovation will be about $750,000, all collected from private contributions. The original cost of the statue was $23,796.82.

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