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Liberty's Pedestal: Richard Morris Hunt's Architectural Design

How did a sketch of the Statue of Liberty become reality?


From sketch to reality, architecture can be a complicated process of design compromises. Building the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty seemed to be an easy proposition, yet age-old cost issues hampered its timely completion. The history of this pedestal illustrates the challenge of turning an idea into a reality.

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Bartholdi's Vision

Auguste Bartholdi's Initial Sketch of the Statue of Liberty as a Lighthouse Atop a Pyramid
Sketch courtesy of the National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument

A statue commemorating Liberty was a French idea. A century after the American Revolution and only weeks after the end of the Civil War, Edouard de Laboulaye shared his vision with a young French scultptor named Auguste Bartholdi. The year was 1865—more than 20 years before the 1886 dedication of the Statue of Liberty.

By 1870 Bartholdi had begun designs for a monument. The initial sketch shown here proposed a grand statue as a lighthouse atop a pyramid, no doubt influenced by Bartholdi's experiences in Egypt. Bartholdi's exposure to the architecture in ancient Egypt gave rise to his passion for making his statue bigger, taller, and more colossal than anything else being built. At one time Bartholdi had drawn plans for an Egyptian Colossus-like figure to light the newly opened Suez Canal, but Egypt balked at the cost. Bartholdi's Middle Eastern lighthouse design, repurposed for New York harbor, would also be too expensive for the organizations who paid for the Statue of Liberty.

Richard Morris Hunt's Early Design

An early sketch for the Statue of Liberty's pedestal shows a solid, fortress-like design.
Illustration courtesy of the National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument

In September 1875, Edouard de Laboulaye formed the Franco-American Union to raise funds and share the cost of design and construction. Splitting the cost also meant splitting the design, so Liberty Enlightening the World became smaller and funded by the French while the American people would enlarge her presence with a pedestal.

By 1881, the American committee in charge commissioned well-known American architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a grand pedestal in keeping with the great Gilded Age homes being built at the time.

Consulting with Bartholdi and understanding his vision, Hunt proposed the monumental 114 foot pedestal shown here. Combining the designs of a fortress with the grandeur of the ancient Lighthouse at Alexandria, Hunt's pedestal would satisfy every criteria except one—it was too expensive.

Hunt's Final Design

Dreawing of the pedistal upon which the Statue of Liberty was placed.
Sketch courtesy of the National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument

In 1884 Hunt completed the final sketch for the smaller, 87-foot pedestal. The drawing seen here represents the architecture of what we see today.

Hunt's two designs are similar, except for the scale. To visually accommodate the lack of grandeur by sheer height, the new design appears wider and more solid. The new design is less of a fortress and more inviting, with larger columned open spaces.

This design was accepted by the Committee, and construction began immediately.

Pedestal Construction

Photo of 19th century workmen building a huge base for the Statue of Liberty
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument

Construction began with the pouring of 54,000,000 pounds of concrete—said to be the largest concrete foundation of its time. The concrete walls were designed to be up to 20 feet thick, with blocks of granite to finish the facade. Construction pounded ahead in 1884, in anticipation of Bartholdi's Statue scheduled to arrive from France the next year.

In the middle of the pedestal construction, after the cornerstone was laid, funds for the American project ran out. Work came to a halt and would not continue again for nearly two years.

The Statue arrived on time, but the pedestal was not completed until newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer helped raise the required funds. By 1886 Bartholdi's Lady Liberty was able to come out of her storage crates and get back on her feet to stand tall atop Hunt's completed pedestal.

From Design to Pedestal

Pedestal of the Statue of Liberty
Photo © Christoph Anton Mitterer as calestyo on flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

This view of the Statue of Liberty's pedestal can be compared with Richard Morris Hunt's final design (see above). From sketch to reality, the architectural process is rarely an easy path, but the final result can be thrilling. Since its dedication on October 28, 1886, with few exceptions, this monument to liberty in New York City has been open for all to see.

Lady Liberty Stands Tall

Photo from island looking at the Statue of Liberty, the pedestal, and the pointed foundation.
Photo © Wesley Hitt, Getty Images.

Standing back, one can see how well the pieces fit. Bartholdi's iconic Liberty sculpture achieves much of her grandeur from the pedestal architecture of Richard Morris Hunt. The project's combined effort—French artistry, American architecture, and the financing of both countries—is testiment to friendship, cooperation, and a global vision for Liberty.

Source for this Article: National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument website at www.nps.gov/stli/ [accessed October 30, 2012]

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