When I was growing up, I would hear stories about Madison and the University of Wisconsin from my mother as we were driving past the campus. She'd point out what had changed, like where a Rennebohm's soda counter had been or that the Medical Sciences Center used to be Madison General Hospital. Among these stories were the classics; how the Sterling Hall bombing was planned in a dark booth at the Nitty Gritty, how 1,000 pink flamingos dotted Bascom Hill, and how the Statue of Liberty was erected on the frozen surface of Lake Mendota.
I'm working with a group of people in Hoofers to bring back the original Statue of Liberty -- a stunt pulled off by the pranksters in the UW's Pail and Shovel party. Our plan is to return it to the ice of Lake Mendota in front of the Memorial Union for Valentine's Day weekend (and possibly longer) during the 1996 winter carnival, as well as at Willow Island on the south side in 2004.
Dane County is currently in possession of the statue, and has been since the late 1990s, when private storage options were no longer available. The original barn it was stored in was destroyed during the infamous 1984 Barneveld tornado, along with the original torch, but the rest of the statue survived. Now the county would like to pass it along to Hoofers, as the building it is storing the statue in is slated for demolition.
The folks I serve with at the Wisconsin Union on the Hoofer Council have been working on our Winter Carnival for months, and it's finally all coming together, with the Statue of Liberty evolving into this great, unifying feature. We've heard from the Union's administration and various groups, including students in the Art Department, original members of the building crew, and a number of alumni who have fond memories of the statue, all offering to lend a hand.
With liability always an issue, it helps that when the county completely rebuilt the torch in 2004 for display at the Alliant Energy Center, it used welded aluminum instead of the structurally unsound, original eight-foot sections of wooden 2x4 steeples that came tumbling down in 1996. But with thirty feet of welded aluminum, we're now working on finding a truck with a built-in crane that we can use to raise the torch directly.
Because a forward-thinking individual with the county took the time to cover the torch with thick plastic sheeting, its painted surface is pristine and will only need minimal attention in the restoration. On the other hand, the Styrofoam head will need a ton of cleaning, repair and a new paint-job. Other necessities include heated and accessible construction space on campus, about $750 in estimated repair expenses (thanks in part to hungry rodents), and plenty of volunteers to bring it all together.
Hoofers also hopes to bring the Statue of Liberty back to Lake Mendota for future winter carnivals. The group has long-term outdoor storage facilities through several of its clubs, but would like to secure long-term indoor storage space.
While determining whether or not Hoofers would be able to go forward with this project, I spoke with Madison historian Stu Levitan at the High Noon Saloon on the night of Obama's inauguration. Explaining the idea, he said, "Oh! Well Chris here was originally involved in building it." Two seats down from me was the man that actually knew how to put together the jumbled mass of Styrofoam pieces I had seen earlier that day.
In fact, Chris Murphy was the person originally in charge of the construction of the support structure for the statue. I was so excited to meet someone who could understand what the numbering system meant and what the random assortment of screws, bolts and washer were for. I flipped through my camera, showing him what had become of the statue. Murphy was blown away that the statue was still around, and that Hoofers was looking to get it back out on the ice.
Murphy said that the original sculptor was able to get the statue accurately to scale because her grandfather had been a lighthouse keeper on Bedloe's Island, now known as Liberty Island, and was able to get access to authentic documents detailing its configuration. Murphy and others built the statue with $5,000 in student government funds, little realizing how long it would be remembered.
Murphy assured me that if they had known the statue would be around for decades, they would have built it differently, perhaps out of fiberglass. But with only one winter in mind, they hired trucks, ordered Stryrofoam from Chicago, rented scaffolding, used Music Hall as a construction facility, and paid themselves minimum wage plus lots of Pizza Pit pies to erect and guard it.
Helping create this version of the Statue of Liberty helped change the course of Murphy's professional life. An animation art major, he enjoying building sculptural forms so much that he changed his major focus to sculpture, and makes his living today by creating commissioned art pieces. He was originally planning on helping Hoofers assemble the statue next week, but a potential commission in China has developed and he may be jetting off instead that weekend.
During my quest to explore the statue's background, I contacted Lori Whitcomb, its co-creator. She explained that she and her roommate came up with the idea for the statue, and that it was her roommate's boyfriend and one of his friends, both affiliated with Pail and Shovel, who pulled everything together. The project created a special bond between the two women who envisioned it, especially after they left campus. Whitcomb's roommate passed away from cancer in the '90s, and for her the statue is forever tied to her memory of their college days together.
Somewhere along the way, Pail and Shovel prime movers Leon Varjian and James Mallon got all the credit for the statue, which tied into a narrative about the party's policy platforms. What I'm discovering is that the story is a lot more nuanced than simply, "Leon promised to bring the Statue of Liberty to Madison," and it involved a lot of people.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Madison's own Statue of Liberty, and it's only fitting to bring it back for a new generation, particularly on Valentine's Day. Restoring the statue is such a great community-building, quintessential Madisonian project, and it's thrilling to be involved in its tradition. I hope the statue will give residents, students, alumni, grandchildren, families and couples a great reason to take a day and enjoy an icon of Madison's past, present and, hopefully, future.
Bridget Maniaci is the vice-commodore of the Hoofers Sailing Club, and is running for the District 2 seat on the Madison Common Council. Photos of the statue before its restoration are available in the gallery at top, and more can be contact her.