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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: Far above the streets of Buffalo, preserving Liberty

James Carpino can only hope his little girl remembers. From the top of his city a week or two ago, he pulled out his mobile phone and called his wife, Sharlyn, using Facetime. He asked her to hold the phone so their 4-year-old daughter Violet could see the screen.

Carpino, 39, lifted his own phone and turned it in a slow circle, taking in the peak of Buffalo City Hall and the calm expanse of Lake Erie that ran off into blue mist, far to the west. Carpino brought the phone back to the top floors of the downtown skyscrapers that rose up along Main Street, providing his daughter with a sense of just how high he was, before he turned the phone to the great and somber visage at his fingertips:

In patina shadow and tranquility, it was the face of Liberty.

For a moment, Violet contemplated all of it in silence.

Daddy, she said to him, please be careful up there.

Carpino laughed. He told the child he was safe.

What he hopes is that the moment will quietly sink in, that Violet will always see him — and their family — as a living part of a landmark that is such a part of Buffalo.

"It was just kind of awesome, amazing," said Carpino, a tin knocker with Sheet Metal Workers Local 71. He remembers his own childhood, when his mother would take him downtown from the city's Valley neighborhood and he would look up at the twin statues of Liberty, towering above the 24th floor of the Liberty Building.

Like just about every child in Buffalo, he wondered what it might be like up there, how it would feel to see those statues face-to-face, whether it was possible to climb up and stand at the foot of Liberty.

Now, he was showing his own daughter firsthand.

"Really," Carpino said, "it's kind of beyond imagination."

James Carpino, a union sheet metal foreman at Local 71, solders new material onto the statue atop the eastern tower of the Liberty Building earlier this month. Fifth year apprentice Matt Strojny works uses a grinder to prepare the surface on the other side, left. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

He and Matt Strojny, a fifth-year apprentice with the union, finished the work this week. They were first hired a year ago by the Main Place Liberty Group, owners of the building, to repair the western statue, whose face turns straight toward the ferocity of incoming storms from Lake Erie. In places, that statue's copper "skin" was actively leaking.

By the time Carpino and Strojny finished their soldering last autumn, they were working in cold winds and falling snow. Chris Potter, a project manager for the building's owner, said a decision was made to do the eastern statue as well, before its condition grew any worse. So Safe Span, a Buffalo company, threw up scaffolding around the seven brick risers atop the eastern tower, and then around the 28-foot statue itself.

At the peak of summer, Carpino and Strojny returned to finish the job from a place at least 320 feet above the sidewalk, where they could touch the peak of Liberty's crown.

"Sometimes I would just take a minute," Strojny said of that work, "to remind myself of how special it was."

James Carpino, a union sheet metal foreman with Local 71, uses a soldering iron to add a layer of copper material on the crown of Liberty atop the eastern tower. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The statues were designed by Leo Lentelli, an Italian immigrant and an accomplished American sculptor. While identical in many ways to Frederic Auguste Bartholdi's legendary original in New York Harbor, Lentelli's versions differed in a few stylistic details. All told, he created three statues for the building. There are the two 28-foot Liberties atop the roof, and a third — a smaller version in marble — that now greets visitors in the downtown lobby.

For Carpino and Strojny, the artistry was not simply in the sculptural design. They are tradesmen, and they saw in an intimate way how that detailed copper skin - pockmarked, Carpino said, by the violence of hail storms - held together 80 pieces of metal in a seamless way.

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

Looking from one statue toward the other, Carpino spoke with awe of how everyday workers in 1920s "took copper and made it resemble the folds of a garment."

Soldering, Carpino said, "can be meticulous and tedious, and when you do it, you have nothing but time." He had plenty of opportunity to reflect as he did his work amid blue skies, where peregrine falcons flew in whirling circles, high above the city. Carpino said he could almost feel the presence of the workers who crouched in the same place, when the statues first went up more than 90 years ago.

Every now and then he would wonder — as he studied each seam that he repaired — if some tin knocker atop that landmark years from now will see his work and ask all the same questions about him.

On the eastern statue, as on the western one, the globe that holds liberty's torch needed repairs. Carpino decided to carry it home to his work bench in Cheektowaga, where he could do the work in the bright lights of his shop, where he could be absolutely sure there were no pinholes that might allow water to seep in.

Those torches can be seen for miles away. Folklore has it that you could spot them from freighters, approaching Buffalo on the lake. Carpino, as he labored over that job, wondered if Violet will do what so many children in Western New York have done for generations.

As night falls over Buffalo, maybe the child will look up with tired eyes from the back seat of their car, and she will see the lights held high by the twin statues of Liberty. Then she will look toward the guy in the old baseball cap behind the steering wheel, and she will think about their lifetime secret.

Her father helped to make sure those torches always burn.

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

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