THE countdown has begun for Miss Liberty. The guardian of New York Harbor and beacon light to generations of immigrants is now swaddled in a cocoon of scaffolding.
The Statue of Liberty, a gift from the French people to the United States in 1886, has become severely corroded since she began her watch on the harbor. Extensive restoration work began last year.
But by the Fourth of July next year, her 100th birthday, the statue is scheduled to shed the scaffolding.
She'll hold a new lamp, and the flame will be plated in gold to shine in daylight. The statue's crown, with seven spikes signifying the seven seas and seven continents, will be refinished and strengthened.
After two years of restoration work, the statue will be more structurally sound inside, as nearly 1,600 iron ribs are replaced with ribs of a modern, rustproof alloy. And the 200,000 pounds of hand-hammered copper exterior will be cleaned.
But the Statue of Liberty is more than a token of friendship between two nations. The monument quickly became a symbol of liberty, unity, and justice for all, especially for the common man, says Wade McCann, guest curator for the New York Historical Society's current exhibit on Statue of Liberty souvenirs and ephemera.
David J. Dent of Brooklyn says it simply:
``It's a promise. It's a symbol of what the country is supposed to be, and what it hopefully someday will be.''
To some of the people who have worked on the restoration, it has significant meaning.
``My father was a little boy when he came to this country [from Italy],'' says Mark Scola, an ironworker on the project. ``He remembers the emotion of coming up the harbor and seeing the statue, the first prominent feature of the United States.
``Now my little boy is thrilled that I'm working here. My whole neighborhood knows that I'm working on the restoration of the Statue of Liberty, and I'm a local hero.''
Gilbert Cruz, also an ironworker, says his grandparents came from Puerto Rico in 1915. They passed through nearby Ellis Island, the nearby immigration-processing center, which is also undergoing renovation.
``As a kid I remember them talking about the Liberty as being a great symbol of freedom,'' Mr. Cruz says.
The statue was the idea of Edouard Ren'e Lefebvre de Laboulaye, a legal scholar in France and an admirer of the young American democracy.
French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi designed and built the statue, whose face is modeled after the sculptor's mother. The Statue of Liberty is just over 151 feet from base to torch and weighs 225 tons. Her index finger alone is eight feet long. Her exterior is made up of about 300 copper sheets thinner than a penny.
``Liberty Enlightening the World'' is the statue's original name. When the flow of immigrants into the United States accelerated about the turn of the century, the statue became a symbol of freedom and of a new start to those people leaving their homes for the New World.
Emma Lazarus's sonnet ``The New Colossus,'' engraved in a plaque at the monument in 1903, further strengthened that feeling. It says, in part, ``Send these the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.''
The Statue of Liberty is ``not any ordinary public monument,'' Mr. McCann says. It is a female figure, warm and welcoming.
The souvenirs the curator brought together for the historical society's exhibit were bought mostly at flea markets and antiques fairs. McCann believes many were bought by children of immigrants, who had heard stories of their relatives' arrivals in the country. The exhibit, titled ``The Statue of Liberty: America's Symbol of Freedom in Souvenirs and Ephemera,'' runs through Jan. 5.
More than $260 million in donations has been sought to fund the restoration of Miss Liberty, much of it coming from schoolchildren, corporate sponsors, and merchandising. Over $170 million has been raised so far.
There has been some controversy about the cost of restoration. Chrysler chief Lee A. Iacocca, chairman of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation Inc., recently announced that more funding would be needed. The cost was originally estimated at $230 million.
But organizers vow the work will be completed by July 4, 1986. Then, graceful and dignified, Lady Liberty will be honored in an extravaganza befitting her status. Tall ships, parades, and fireworks will cap the unveiling.
As a local newspaper has put it, the restoration is giving ``new life to an old flame.''