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Freedom’s face-lift

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Freedom sits at a lofty place in the hearts of Americans, but in Washington, it stands with the best view in the city on top of the nation's Capitol.

From atop the Capitol's dome, the Statue of Freedom has had an almost unobstructed view for more than 140 years. It has borne witness to 27 presidents sworn in on the steps below and watched over lawmakers during wars and peacetime.

But every few years, that view gets blocked by scaffolding erected by crews hired by the curator of the Capitol to clean and recaulk the aging statue. This year, following the Fourth of July fireworks, the curator's office began erecting the scaffolding for the cleaning project that will last several weeks.

"Each time we go up there, we clean and recaulk it and make sure that it isn't leaking," Capitol Curator Barbara Wolanin says. "The other part of the job is to check the pedestal."

The statue is made of half-inch thick bronze and weighs more than 16,000 pounds, according to the architect of the Capitol's Web site (www.aoc.gov).

Although the 19-foot, 6-inch statue looks like a mere hood ornament from the ground, up close it is an imposing figure whose defiant glance stares east, with her right hand resting on the hilt of a sheathed sword and her left on the shield of the United States. She faces this way so that, symbolically, the sun never sets on the face of freedom.

The tips of the statue's eagle-feathered headdress reach 288 feet above Capitol Hill, making it the pinnacle of Washington's tallest building and the second-highest structure behind the Washington Monument.

But for the public, it's difficult to get close to the statue.

Capitol visitors were not allowed to tour the dome following September 11, but tours were reinstated in 2004. Visitors have never been able to walk outside at the top of the Capitol dome to see the statue up close and have only had brief views of the statue from inside the building.

However, for a time in 1993, Thomas Crawford's famous statue was a little more accessible to the general public.

On Mother's Day, May 9, 1993, Erickson Air-Crane Inc. used one of its S-64 Aircrane helicopters to lift the statue off of its base at the top of the Capitol and move it to a safe spot on the steps of the Capitol for its first major preservation project. The curator withheld the name of who did the preservation project for national security reasons.

"That project was one of the highlights of my career," Ms. Wolanin said. "It was preceded by a conservation study in 1991 that determined how much work needed to be done."

Prior to the 1991 study, the statue had never been completely restored.

David Horton, aerial vice president of Erickson Air-Crane, says he never thought when he applied for his job that he would one day be moving one of America's most iconic figures.

During Operation Lift Off, in 1993, Mr. Horton was Erickson's heavy lift manager and was in charge of the nine-man crew that lifted the statue from its base atop the Capitol, in front of a crowd of 10,000 to 15,000, and put it back a few months later.

"There was a tremendous sense of pride," Mr. Horton says. "I've worked here for 28 years, and that project is still the most unique I've ever been involved with. The whole symbolism of the project will make it my favorite."

Mr. Horton, who lives in Medford, Ore., says the company first got involved with the project when its marketing manager heard about the idea.

"They had heard that the Mississippi National Guard was going to move the statue," he says. "But there is a provision in the law that says when there is work out there that can be done by a civilian operator, it should be done by civilians."

Erickson protested, won and was invited to be part of the operation.

To prepare for the project, Mr. Horton and his team of four pilots and four construction workers met with engineers, lighting and protections services, and the Capitol Police.

"To make sure that we could lift it without it tilting or falling over, we had to install a six-inch ring underneath the statue," he said. "Now it's six inches taller than what it was before we moved it — besides it weighs more than 16,000 pounds."

The 1993 restoration project took four months to complete, Ms. Wolanin says. Corrosion was removed by water blasted at medium pressure. Other repairs included the insertion of bronze plugs and patches.

Workers also repainted the statue to its original bronze green color and ended the process by applying layers of acrylic lacquer and wax to protect the statue from further corrosion, she says.

For the project, the U.S. Capitol Preservation Commission provided $780,000 in privately raised funds, of which $60,000 was used for the airlift, Mr. Horton says.

Before his crew returned the statue to its spot on top of the Capitol, Mr. Horton remembers carrying a 50-pound bolt to fasten the statue back onto the building.

"The elevator doors opened up to Senator Sam Nunn's office, and when I got out, a lady came out of his office and asked if she could help," Mr. Horton says. "There was a chandelier above her head, and I jokingly told her that I was there to fix the bolt that held up the light."

Then, Mr. Horton says, Mr. Nunn came out of his office and wished him and his crew good luck.

When his crew placed the statue back on the dome of the Capitol on Oct. 23, 1993, Mr. Horton was standing at the statue's base, guiding the pilots as they lowered the statue.

Around the Capitol and down the Mall, a crowd of 50,000 to 100,000 persons had gathered, including President Clinton, Mr. Horton says.

"Those helicopters can be very noisy, so we wear helmets to protect our ears," he says. "But as the helicopter set the statue and the hooks opened and the helicopter began to separate, I could hear the cheers of the crowd over the noise of the helicopter."

That was quite a moment, Mr. Horton says.

The day became a national holiday of sorts. Along with the large crowd, Congress celebrated the bicentennial of the Capitol itself. Mr. Clinton also gave a speech about the event, and poet laureate Rita Dove read a poem she had written.

The curator of the Capitol's office, under the direction of acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers, conducts cleaning projects every two years, with this year's project slated to be finished in early August. Once the project is finished, the scaffolding will return to its storage space inside the Capitol dome.

However, that routine may soon change. During the last cleaning, the crew used a new coating called Incralac, which, according to Ms. Wolanin, should last longer than other coatings.

The crew will begin by buffing the original surface of the statue and making it chemically clean. The bronze will then be treated with a special cleaner before the Incralac is applied using a scouring pad.

"The people doing the cleaning wash it with mild soap and hoses," Ms. Wolanin says. "Now we're also going to see how long the new coating lasts."

The three-man cleaning team will also sharpen the lightning rods on the top of the statue's head before they take the scaffolding down.

Ms. Wolanin, who has been with the curator's office since 1985, says she has always been interested in conservation: "Part of the fun is getting up on the scaffolding, up close to the art."

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