Sheet metal contractor takes his work to the top of the Staute of Liberty.



SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Sheet metal work and acting. The two don't seem to go together, unless you're Dennis Heaphy.

Some people know the 45-year-old Syracuse, N.Y., resident as a fourth-generation tinsmith who has done historical restoration work on church steeples and even castles.

Others may have seen Heaphy in the theater productions he directs and sometimes performs on New York City's Ellis Island and at area schools.

But it was these seeming disparate pursuits that led Heaphy to what he once called the "Holy Grail" of sheet metal work: the Statue of Liberty.

In 1999, Heaphy was production manager for a show about immigrants the National Park Service was staging on Ellis Island. The room being used for the play had been converted into a theater, and it needed upgraded lighting. Heaphy was hired to make new lighting grids, a project that he said was made tougher because regulations prohibited cutting into the ceiling or floor of the historic building.

Looking for work

Coincidently, the same park service employees responsible for the buildings on Ellis Island were also in charge of maintenance for the statue on nearby Liberty Island. Although he had never even been inside it, Heaphy thought he'd ask if there was any work available on the statue itself.

"I thought this guy was probably going to laugh in my face, but he said, ‘I don't know, we can probably find you something.' "

That "something" turned out to be replacing the rusted bronze locks on the windows in the Statue of Liberty's crown. Many of the windows were stuck open, if they opened at all.

Because of the age and condition of the mechanisms, "They needed someone who understood metallurgy," he said.

Heaphy certainly did. His family started in the sheet metal business 112 years ago, when his great-grandfather was making splash guards for the horse-drawn carriages that were then common on the streets of Syracuse. Eventually, D.J. Heaphy and Son moved into duct fabrication, metal roofing and HVAC work.

Heaply said he was always fascinated by sheet metal, and boasted that he was "the master in our shop by the time I was 15."

He practiced by making what he called "strange" things - stainless steel containers used in ice cream makers and replica furniture brackets for antiques dealers.

Syracuse, N.Y., sheet metal contractor Dennis Heaphy was hired to replace the rusted window locks in the Statue of Liberty's crown.

‘A flair'

"I had a flair for it," he said. "I was rather meticulous about it. I enjoyed the feel of the metal and the potential of it."

For the statue project, Heaphy decided to replace the rusty bronze locks with ones made of nickel, since they would not easily corrode.

The hours were not ideal: He would have to drive nearly four hours from Syracuse to take the late-afternoon ferry to Liberty Island. He would start working in the evening, after the monument had closed to tourists. He would have to walk up the statue's 354-step spiral staircase, and could only work for about four hours a night, because the last boat leaves the island at 10 p.m.

The work was so meticulous, Heaphy said, that on one occasion, he forgot that he was working inside an internationally known symbol of freedom.

"All of a sudden, I saw the book that she was holding in her hand," he said, referring to the tablet inscribed with Emma Lazarus' poem about "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

"I started to giggle, realizing immediately where (I was)."

Another time, he was so involved in the project that he missed the last boat back to Manhattan, which forced him to sleep inside the crown, where he heard the 118-year-old monument creak and felt it sway all night long.

As proud as Heaphy is of the work, most people may never see it again. When the Statue of Liberty was reopened to tourists Aug. 3 for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it was announced that the public would no longer be able to climb to its crown.

Officials with the park service, citing security concerns and the fact the statue's winding staircase was never designed to handle tourists, are keeping the public at the base, which includes a museum and 16-story observation deck. A new glass ceiling will allow tourists to see the statue's metal skeleton.

"It's very disappointing," Heaphy said of the decision to keep the crown off limits.

There are other examples of Heaphy's work on display at the statue, however. In 2002, Heaphy made new decorative grates for the heating registers in the museum's lobby. He also continues to bid on projects for the ongoing restoration of Ellis Island, where he also performs as an historical re-enactor.

The history of the statue

The Statue of Liberty, originally called "Liberty Enlightening the World," was given to the United States by France in 1886. Sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi worked with Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, who later designed the Eiffel Tower in Paris, to create the 151-foot tall, copper-clad monument.

The statue is covered in 300 copper sheets, each less than 3 millimeters thick. They were brought to New York from Paris packed in 214 wooden crates. Then-President Grover Cleveland dedicated the statue Oct. 28, 1886. Its dark-copper color would turn the familiar patina green during the next 20 years.

The 25 windows in the statue's crown represent Earth's gemstones and heaven's rays.

From 1982-86, an $87 million restoration refurbished the statue and the surrounding Liberty Island on which it stands. The statue's torch was replaced and air conditioning was added to the statue and its base, which houses a museum.

The statue and museum were closed for almost three years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. They were reopened Aug. 3, although the winding stairway that leads to the crown is no longer open to the public.