Protector of Congress Gets Time Off for a Make-Over : The Statue of Freedom, a goddess figure erected atop the Capitol dome in 1863, will be removed by helicopter for renovation.


It takes a lot to get the nation’s capital out of bed early on a Sunday morning.

But many Washingtonians are expected to arise before sunup this weekend for a chance to witness a spectacular aerial feat, with a dollop of history mixed in.

Starting at 6 a.m. Sunday, a huge helicopter is to hover over the Capitol, pluck the Civil War-era statue from atop the dome and, with luck, gingerly deliver it into the hands of a restoration crew.

“Of course I’ll be there because I have been involved so closely with the statue for so long,” said Barbara Wolanin, the Capitol curator. “But part of me wants to be at home in bed with my hands over my eyes until it is over.”


Braving the elements since 1863, the 7 1/2-ton Statue of Freedom, a robed goddess bearing sword and shield as the symbolic “protector of Congress,” has become discolored and corroded, with extensive pitting on its surface and cracks in its base.

Scientists unknowingly speeded up deterioration of the bronze-and-iron figure in the 1950s, when they argued that the green layer of corrosion was protective rather than destructive. Capitol caretakers stopped washing the statue, only to discover years later that the corrosion layer had been eating away at the metal underneath.

Towering 287 feet above Capitol Hill, the 19-foot-tall statue has a rich history. It has been struck by lightning literally hundreds of times, and lightning strikes have sometimes melted the points of the helmet atop the goddess’ head. “Periodically, workers have to climb up to the top and resharpen the melted points,” Wolanin said.

That would not have been necessary if sculptor Thomas Crawford had been allowed to fulfill his original vision. As his designs were circulated just before the Civil War, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis objected to Crawford’s plans to adorn the figure with a liberty cap, which was worn by freed Roman slaves. Davis found the cap inappropriate at a time when the nation was embroiled in the controversy over slavery.

So the cap was changed to a helmet, with an eagle’s head and feathers suggestive of American Indians and liberty--and Davis, of course, soon left Washington to become president of the Confederacy.

The goddess originally arrived at the Capitol in five pieces, and workers used an elaborate set of pulleys and winches, powered by a steam hoist, to lift it up piece by piece before assembling it in place.


Taking it down should be simpler, but a trifle risky--to congressional dignity if not to life and limb. After all, would official Washington ever recover from the symbolism of the “protector of Congress” crashing down on the rotunda?

Actually, the only major technical problem foreseen by Architect of the Capitol George White is loosening the bolts securing the statue, bolts that have not been turned since 1863. That is not to suggest that all else has gone smoothly, however. As any student of American politics knows, government projects get down to nuts and bolts only after a generous amount of jawboning, and the statue was no exception.

A spirited lobbying campaign took place over whether the National Guard or private industry should get the contract to remove the statue. At the urging of Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.), White initially gave the job to the Guard, and units in Mississippi, Alabama and Pennsylvania began training.

But private industry protested and the Pentagon overruled White, citing the Economy Act of 1932, which bars the military from competing with private industry for commercial contracts. The contract was awarded instead to Erickson Air-Crane Co., headquartered near Medford, Ore.

That decision infuriated Montgomery and Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (D-Pa.), who argued that the National Guard would charge only $20,000, whereas Erickson’s fee is $60,000.

The helicopter industry saw it differently. Frank L. Jensen Jr., president of the Helicopter Assn. International, said the Guard’s $20,000 figure ignores training costs involved.


Montgomery disagreed. “This would have substituted for a training mission in Mississippi,” he said. “If they aren’t taking the statue off the Capitol, they’ll just be lifting logs or concrete blocks.”

During the $750,000 cleaning process, the figure will be returned to its original color--”bronze green”--and will be repaired and coated with a protective lacquer to prevent future deterioration. The current plan is to have it back in place by mid-September, in time for the bicentennial celebration of the laying of the Capitol cornerstone.