One of the city's most recognizable symbols started to take shape atop the frozen surface of Lake Mendota in front of Memorial Union on Thursday afternoon after more than a dozen years' absence. That's right, the Statue of Liberty has returned to Madison.
Constructed and first erected by University of Wisconsin-Madison students in February 1979 based on a promise by the infamous and prank-prone Pail and Shovel Party in its student government platform, the statue has returned to the surface of Lake Mendota twice; once the following winter and again in early 1996. Lady Liberty also made an appearance on Willow Island in 2004 after a restoration by Dane County. Now she is returning to her original home on the ice in front of Memorial Union as part of the Hoofers Winter Carnival.
The UW student and alumni group devoted to outdoor recreation is now in formal possession of the statue, having purchased it from the county for the handsome sum of $1. During the planning for the carnival, the Hoofer Council thought to bring the statue back this winter to mark the 30th anniversary of its creation. Hoofers Sailing Club vice-commodore (and current Madison Common Council candidate) Bridget Maniaci took the lead in the organizing for the project, tracking down persons involved the statue's creation and recruiting volunteers from the club to bring everything together.
Lady Liberty was not in good shape. While the torch had a new metal superstructure and mount thanks to the county, the Styrofoam segments of the bust were worn by time and rodents, and required significant restoration. That has been the focus of Hoofers over the last few weeks, as has been making plans for actually placing the statue onto the lake.
The statue started to rise on Thursday, though, as about two dozen volunteers helped transport its parts from a warehouse to the shores of the lake, and from there to its surface in front of the Memorial Union. Starting around 9:30 a.m., the group first brought the torch to the lake, then its top, and then Styrofoam building blocks. By 2 p.m., they had hit the ice to start the process of putting everything together. One of the first major tasks was driving thick stakes into the ice to serve as stabilizers for the torch, which rises tens of feet high above the frozen laketop. With that done, the group then turned to assembling Lady Liberty's head.
Walking along the shores of the lake at the Union Terrace was Rita McConville, a 1989 graduate of UW-Madison who was taking in the campus sights during a visit to town. "I wish we would have put the statue back up when I was here," said the onetime member of the Wisconsin Student Association, the student government group that was taken over by the Pail and Shovel Party during its heyday in the late '70s. "I think it's really cool it exists, and that it's returning."
Out on the ice, about a foot-and-a-half to two feet thick in most spots, conditions were much chillier despite it being a relatively balmy winter day. Winds were steady, blowing the Styrofoam pieces of the statue around at points, and strong enough to prevent the raising of the torch. The surface of the lake itself was an uneven moonscape of bumps, ridges, frozen-over ice fishing holes, and alternating patches of light and dark ice, the result of the recent thaw that has done away with much of remaining winter snow. It was quite slippery too, and everybody on the ice was careful in their footfalls.
Also atop the lake, Ron Ellenbolt and his son Luke were ice fishing at a half-dozen holes not too far from where the Hoofers crew was busy assembling the statue. They've been out on the ice quite a bit taking advantage of late winter, and have found the biting better on Lake Mendota than their shack on Lake Monona. Not today, though, with the racket by the statue. Nevertheless, they were excited to see Lady Liberty take shape.
"It's good to see more artistic things on the lake," said Ellenbolt, referencing the winter sculptures placed regularly by Madison artist and Pail and Shovel alumnus Tim Browning on Monona, as well as the now defunct Kites on Ice festival. "There's a whole lot of space out here for people to take advantage of," he noted.
As the sun sank well below the bluffs of Bascom Hill and the evening winds picked up, the crew working on the statue wrapped everything up for the day. The bust was mostly complete, excepting the top of her crown and the spiked rays emanating from it. The torch still rested horizontally on the ice too, its mounting stakes left to freeze solid into the ice overnight to make for a simpler and safer hoisting.
People are already starting to take note of the Lady Liberty, though, with many stopping along the shores at the Terrace to gawk and shoot photos, with even a few venturing out onto the ice for a closer look. Some were familiar with the statue and its role as a symbol for Madison, or had at least seen it on postcards, while others had never heard of it before and were only familiar with the Planet of the Apes visage of the figure, but all were keen on seeing it in its full glory.
Hoofers volunteers plan to finish assembling the statue on Friday. They have already set a close guard on it, meanwhile, in order to prevent any vandalism, which has been a problem in the past for the Styrofoam sculpture. The ongoing assembling of the statue can be viewed on the Memorial Union webcam, which was pointed towards its temporary home on the ice for the occasion.
Lady Liberty will remain in place at least through the weekend during the Hoofers Winter Carnival, at which point the group will evaluate the weather and other conditions to see if it can kept up through the following week. Hoofers is also seeking donations to help support the statue, to ensure that it can be kept in good condition, and to hopefully put it back public display regularly in the future.
"I think it's a really great icon for winter in Madison," said Maniaci, "and we're really happy to be getting involved with getting it up on the ice."