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Sean Kirst: High above Buffalo, coming face-to-face with Liberty

I am betting that I am hardly alone in this memory.

More than a half-century ago, I was a little kid in Western New York, the youngest child in a factory family. We'd drive through downtown Buffalo in early evening, the sky just bright enough to highlight the silhouettes of the twin statues atop the Liberty Building, one facing east, one facing west, with electric torches raised high.

To a 4-year-old looking out a back-seat window, some 315 feet below, it almost appeared as if there were enormous steps you could climb to reach the base of the 28-foot statues. My mother would explain that these monumental twins were not the real thing. They were replicas of the statue that has greeted newcomers and travelers, for generations, in New York Harbor.

The Buffalo statues were real enough to me. My dad drove heavy equipment on a coal pile. My mother, born to immigrant parents, worked as a clerk or a cleaning woman. In the same way as many of my friends, from similar backgrounds, we basically never went on overnight vacations. New York Harbor was a faraway place, visited only by imagination. To me, it might just as well have been the moon.

The only Statues of Liberty I'd ever known were the two who kept their vigil on the Buffalo skyline. All the qualities I'd been taught the American experience should represent – justice, decency, kindness, courage – were tied in with the way I felt whenever I saw them.

They still make me feel that way today.

For years, even as an adult, I'd daydream about the chance to see one of them up close, to climb those risers, to study the detail, to learn a little bit about the larger story.

Last week, out of nowhere, I got the chance.

The crown of the Liberty statue on the west tower of the Liberty Building faces City Hall. It is surrounded by scaffolding during a restoration project.  (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

Like just about anyone who's been downtown recently, I noticed the scaffolding erected around the statue on the west tower of the Liberty Building, the one closest to Lake Erie. Curious, I called Chris Potter, a project manager for Transwestern, a management company retained by Main Place Liberty Group, which owns the building.

Potter wasn't simply willing to supply the information.

He said that if we met him on that same day in the lobby of the Liberty Building, he'd take us up onto the scaffolding, to the absolute peak of the statue, where you could touch the star-shaped crown of Liberty.

News photographer Derek Gee was enthusiastic. The two of us hustled to make sure we were there on time.

As part of the tale, it is important to add a few notes about the statues, gleaned from research at the Buffalo History Museum. The building opened on Oct. 17, 1925, or 92 years ago this month. It was the home of the old and familiar Liberty National Bank, once known as the German-National Bank.

Yet World War I, and all the lives lost in full-blown war with the Germans, caused an angry, misdirected backlash against Americans of German descent.

The bank changed its name to Liberty, an American ideal. It hired sculptor Leo Lentelli, an Italian immigrant, to design three Statues of Liberty that would emphasize the theme in its new building. Two would dominate what the bank billed in its logo as its "twin towers of security," while a smaller one – in marble – still graces the magnificent art deco lobby.

I had waited since childhood for a chance to see the statues on the rooftop. Potter brought us to the 19th floor on a classic Otis elevator commanded by Dan Stack, an honest-to-God throwback elevator operator who still uses the original throttle to carry visitors and workers up and down.

When the doors opened, we met property manager Michael Gott and maintenance workers Tony Russo and Marty Trudeau. They were descending with a shattered globe that typically encases the statue's torch, a globe cracked at some point by weather. It had been a difficult chore to unbolt the thing, they said.

Gott remembered seeing the statues as a child. He remembered, as a young man, buying shoes in a shop at the base of the building.

"This is the job I always wanted," he said.

Leo Lentelli's rendering of Liberty stands in the main lobby of the Liberty Building: an attempt to capture an "athletic American girl." (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

We left the elevator and began ascending on the stairs. We walked past the now-closed Mid-Day Club, once a swank 21st floor gathering place for downtown business people, with comfortable rooms that offered a spectacular skyline view. We made our way to a big open space on the 24th floor, beneath the base of the statue, where graffiti on the walls dates back to 1926.

Potter pointed out that to change the bulb in the torch at the absolute peak, workers clamber up an 18-foot indoor spiral staircase that leads into the long arm of Liberty herself.

Then we went outside on the roof, to the scaffolding. It surrounded the seven brick risers you can see from the ground, the levels that almost appear to be giant steps. It was a brilliant day, with a wind from Lake Erie of enough power to make sure you knew it was there.

We climbed a metal ladder that rose from level to level on the scaffolding until we could touch the great metal folds of Liberty's robe, close enough to see how each statue consists of 80 separate pieces, brought together by copper "skin."

Finally we ascended to the top two levels, where the wind blew hard enough to rip a page from my notebook, where the lake – beyond City Hall – offered a sprawling backdrop of brilliant, shimmering blue.

We were face-to-face with the visage of Liberty herself, worn by almost a century of fierce Great Lakes weather, and then we were high enough to look down upon her crown.

These were places, in childhood, of mystery.

I realized our statues are not exactly identical to the famous version in New York, "Liberty Enlightening the World," created by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. According to clippings at the museum, Lintelli sought to make his own distinctive statement. He wanted his figures to be "lithe and slender … with all the charm of the athletic American girl."

The hairstyles are different – the Buffalo statues have almost a 1920s bob – and the expressions are distinct. If the statue in New York is fierce and watchful, our versions seem softer, more reflective, even with a touch of sadness. The tablets held by our Liberty twins are blank. The one in New York is engraved with July 4, 1776, the day the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.

Potter, alongside us on the scaffolding, said Patrick Hotung – top executive with the Liberty Group – "values the history of this building and wants to sustain it for generations."

The statue repairs began simply as upkeep work on the roof. As long as the workers were so close, Potter said, it made sense to check the seams and flashing on the statue, to make sure water wasn't penetrating the copper exterior in ways impossible to see from inside the tower.

Chris Potter, project manager for the Liberty restoration, climbs the scaffolding at the Liberty Building, some 300 feet above the pavement. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The work is expected to take four to six weeks, Potter said, and the Liberty Group will soon decide whether to do similar repairs to the eastern statue, in the spring.

As we climbed the scaffolding, I fully appreciated being at a vantage point where generations of Buffalo children – and plenty of adults – have wanted to be. It was particularly meaningful in light of other details I learned at the museum. The Liberty National Bank contemplated putting radio towers on those peaks instead of the statues, an idea we can all be glad bank officials finally discarded.

Many Western New Yorkers will recall how Didier Pasquette walked a 150-foot tightrope between the towers in 2010. And at least twice – when the bank sold the building in the 1950s, and when Liberty later moved out – there was civic conversation about removing the statues from the towers.

Wisdom prevailed. As bank president Robert J. Donough said in 1982:

"The two ladies have become a recognizable part of the Buffalo skyline, and to remove them would leave a void."

He nailed it. To many of us, the statues embody Buffalo. It had taken me 58 years to ascend to that absolutely unforgettable spot, and we stalled for a while before leaving, until the time finally arrived for us to climb down from a place where I knew I'd probably never stand again.

I thought of all the sweat and love Lentelli put into crafting these sculptures, of the incredible labor and precision required on the part of everyday workers to lift them to such a high point above the city.

I thought of being far below as a child, of my parents explaining the power and meaning of Liberty, of looking up and daydreaming about being close enough, with respect and awe, to be able to someday reach out and actually touch the detailed contours of her face.

For every kid in Buffalo who ever dreamed that same dream:

That's what I did.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

An old clipping from 1925 at the Buffalo History Museum portrays the Liberty Building with radio towers, instead of statues – a decision later abandoned. (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

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