The Statue of Liberty, which for nearly a century has lighted the way for the ''huddled masses yearning to be free,'' as the poem engraved on its base proudly proclaims, is now in need of assistance itself.
Its copper sheathing is wearing thin, says Blaine Cliver, the architect for the National Park Service most familiar with the statue. And even worse, he says , the iron framework just below the statue's skin is corroding and may have to be replaced at a cost of several million dollars.
It's not that ''Miss Liberty,'' which celebrates its centennial in 1986, is unsafe. David Moffitt, superintendent of the Statue of Liberty, says at present there's ''no emergency condition.'' But the statue may have to be closed next year for a major rehabilation, National Park Service (NPS) officials say. More than 1.7 million visitors are expected to visit the statue this year, up from 1. 3 million five years ago. About half of all visitors climb the 167 steps inside the statue to the crown.
According to Mr. Cliver, parts of the 100 tons of copper sheathing covering the statue are wearing thin. And the ''iron armature'' -- basically iron bars a quarter-of-an-inch thick and two inches wide that crisscross the statue throughout just under the outer copper ''skin'' -- may have to be replaced.
Cliver says there has been electrolysis between the copper skin and the iron bars. In essence, ''you have a weak (electric current flowing) between the copper and iron,'' he says. As a result, he continues, the iron armature has eroded in many places. He also notes that while New York City's air pollution has taken its toll on the copper skin, this is a far less serious problem than some officials thought at first and certainly pales in comparison to the corrosion of the armature.
Cliver expects a final study of the statue's condition, initiated just over a year ago, to be completed this fall. Rehabilation is scheduled to begin in the fall 1983 -- provided enough money is available.
Federal funding efforts may get a big helping hand from the private sector. In fact, President Reagan announced May 18 at the White House the formation of a new 21-member federal commission to raise funds for the rehabilation of the Statue of Liberty and nearby Ellis Island, which was the gateway to America for more than 12 million immigrants from 1892 to 1954.
Called the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Centenary Commission, the panel is being headed by Lee A. Iacocca, chairman of the board of the Chrysler Corporation. Ellis Island has significance for Mr. Iacocca because his immigrant parents first set foot on American soil there many years ago.
Statue of Liberty superintendent Moffitt says the commission be responsible for raising enough money from the private sector to do all the restoration work on both islands, with the exception of that part of Ellis Island the Park Service has made available for private development. (NPS officials are now reviewing private developer proposals for hotels, restaurants and shops for Ellis.)
Moffitt says such a commission is really a necessity at a time when Congress, faced with $100 billion-plus federal budget deficits, may not be in any mood to allocate the necessary funds to extensively renovate either landmark.
Moffitt has already received letters from schoolchildren asking if they can put their pennies together to help the Statue of Liberty regain some its former glory.
In the meantime, NPS officials plan to install a series of television monitors to help curb drug and alcohol abuse and graffiti. Officials say they are also considering a limit on the number of people permitted to climb to the crown (the torch was closed decades ago for safety reasons).
Designed by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, and given to America by the people of France, the great statue arrived in New York Harbor in June 1885 -- in 214 pieces that had to be assembled.