Shining new light on the Statue of Liberty

TALL TALE: Of her new book on the Statue of Liberty, Yasmin Khan (M.S.’83 CE) says she was inspired by Allan Temko’s Notre Dame of Paris to “explore a monument as meaningful to our nation as Notre Dame is to France, and as universally cherished.” COURTESY CORNELL UNIVERSITY PRESSTALL TALE: Of her new book on the Statue of Liberty, Yasmin Khan (M.S.’83 CE) says she was inspired by Allan Temko’s Notre Dame of Paris to “explore a monument as meaningful to our nation as Notre Dame is to France, and as universally cherished.” (Photo by Cornell University Press.)Liberty, equality, tolerance, freedom of expression. As the national debate on immigration reform heats up, who hasn’t been thinking deeply about those lofty ideals we celebrate every Fourth of July?

Perhaps there’s no better time to revisit the Statue of Liberty, the elegant monument that graces New York Harbor as an enduring symbol of the principles our nation was founded on 234 years ago. Her long and complicated story is the subject of a new book, Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty, by Yasmin Sabina Khan (M.S.’83 CE).

Taking inspiration from ancient wonders like the Colossus at Rhodes and classical allegorical statuary, and foreshadowing structural achievements like the Eiffel Tower and wind-resistant skyscrapers, the statue is a fitting topic for a structural engineer. But Khan goes beyond the engineering and architecture, exploring the extraordinary individuals and the unlikely confluence of political aspirations, art and aesthetics, economics and culture that brought the statue to life.

“It’s such a remarkable story that it’s hard to grasp,” Khan says. Everyone knows the basics: the unsolicited French gift given to the United States to commemorate a political alliance dating back to the Revolutionary War. “But that outline doesn’t really satisfy,” she adds, “so I enjoyed trying to fill in the details and understand the context for the design, the friendship between the two countries and the history of the 1860s and ‘70s.”

Khan’s engineering perspective is evident in her descriptions of the statue’s construction. The frame—built by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel at a time when metalwork was increasingly replacing wood and stone as a building material—benefitted from new methods of calculating wind resistance, including diagonal forces, which advanced modern structural design.

The statue’s copper sheath was created using the painstaking technique of repoussé, which involved hammering thin metal sheets against wooden forms from the reverse side. In preparation for exposure to wind and heat, the statue’s skin was attached to the structure by metal straps that could flex to resist cracking. Once built to her full 151 feet and exhibited to the French people who had helped finance her, the statue then had to be disassembled and shipped to New York for erection on Bedloe’s Island. There, on October 9, 1886, it was unveiled, standing atop the pedestal built by American architect Richard Morris Hunt.

In the course of her research, Khan became fascinated by Édouard Laboulaye, the French jurist, professor and author who masterminded the statue. Against all odds, even as the United States faced multiple competing priorities in recovering from the Civil War, Laboulaye was able to get the megaproject financed and built after 21 years of unshakeable dedication and persistence.

BUILDER OF BOOKS: Khan, age 49, worked for 14 years in building design before starting on her book-writing career. She lives in Cambridge with her husband, Stephen Byron. STEPHEN D. BYRON PHOTOBUILDER OF BOOKS: Khan, age 49, worked for 14 years in building design before starting on her book-writing career. She lives in Cambridge with her husband, Stephen Byron. (Photo by Stephen D. Byron)“Other books said he was trying to reform the government of France,” Khan says, “but I was also trying to understand what Laboulaye admired about the United States, his concerns about slavery, and what made him want to devote so much to the statue.” Her research revealed the deep admiration many French citizens had for the fledgling nation, which gave them inspiration and hope during the turbulent cycle of republics, modified monarchies, executions and anarchy that followed their own revolution.

Khan examines how liberty is symbolized in sculpture, painting, architecture, even furniture making, and explores French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi’s various influences as he traveled the states to gather ideas for the liberty project. His decisions about what elements to include or exclude in the statue’s design—everything from the tablet she carries in her left hand to her forward-moving stance, the drape of her robe and her serene facial expression—would be critical to the success of the statue, Khan argues.

“Bartholdi’s gift . . . was not centered on artistic originality,” she writes. “Rather, his talent lay in the ability to draw on precedent and endow familiar images with fresh meaning and expression. He wanted to express ideas and aimed to bestow his sculpture with moral authority.”

For example, instead of giving her a pileus, the fez-like cap worn by freed Roman slaves that had long symbolized freedom (see the American Silver Eagle coin or Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People for examples), Bartholdi crowned his statue with a halo of seven rays of the rising sun. Her left foot tramples a broken chain, representing the ruptured bonds of slavery; but the symbol was muted, almost hidden, because of its past association with the too extreme abolitionists. Bartholdi avoided using a sword or other icons of warfare, opting instead for the torch in the statue’s raised right hand to symbolize enlightenment, an illuminating beacon for those seeking the shore.

Author Khan, herself the daughter of immigrants, was born in Chicago to an Austrian Catholic mother and a Bangladeshi Muslim father who, she says, benefited from the openness the United States was known for. “They had that freedom of religion and were tolerated as a mixed couple, which in the early ‘60s was still quite new.”

Following her own 14-year career in building design, Khan wrote her first book, the 2004 Engineering Architecture, which detailed the pioneering structural designs of her father, Fazlur Khan. It was at a lecture she gave on that book in San Francisco that she met Pulitzer prize–winning architecture writer Allan Temko, who suggested she read his Notre Dame of Paris, which in turn inspired her new book.

Khan is hoping an inspiration for her next book will similarly grow out of this one. But in the meantime, she has canceled plans for a promotional tour of lectures and readings due to a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. While progressing slowly, the illness has affected her right motor skills and her tolerance for stress. To cope she moved her computer mouse to her left hand and learned how to use voice-recognition software to help with note-taking.

“I love research and reading,” Khan says, “so that helps.” And her four years on the project gave her a deep admiration for her subject.

“As I came to know her story, I came to see her as a beautiful figure, expressing hope, progress, justice, commitment and, of course, liberty.”