After Sept. 11, 2001, most visitors to Liberty Island found themselves without much to do. Due to security concerns, visitors were no longer allowed to enter the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, much less climb up into the statue’s iconic crown.
Although both the pedestal and the crown have since been reopened to the public, access remains limited and people must make reservations in advance to acquire one of the small number of tickets to visit either the pedestal or the crown.
As a result, millions of people who traveled to the island each year left disappointed. Nicholas Garrison, the lead architect of the Statue of Liberty Museum, which opened in May, hopes the new museum will change that. Garrison, a Princeton resident, said, “It was our idea to add to the experience of the island in addition to making a museum — that people would have a better day and experience as part of our project.”
Garrison grew up in a large Catholic family in Seattle. His father worked for Boeing as an efficiency expert and his mother stayed home and raised the family’s eight children. He described his mother as having “great connections to the Lord above,” that is to say, a very religious woman who kept the family together and his father as “a larger than life person who loved people and kids.” In addition to his day job, the elder Garrison was an inventor who designed several patented mechanical devices, an amateur biologist who planted 150 fruit and nut trees, and an artist who drew large cartoons on the basement walls of the family’s house.
Garrison inherited his father’s artistic streak. As a child he loved drawing, painting, and making things with his hands. He decided to find a career that would integrate his love for drawing after a visit to an uncle’s law office where he decided that he never wanted to do something so boring. At first he wanted to be a mapmaker. The family had a National Geographic atlas that he loved to look at, and he even tried drawing his own maps. He was disappointed to learn that mapmaking, to the extent that it still existed, was all done by computer and that there was no career in creating beautiful hand-drawn maps.
Next, Garrison considered becoming a graphic artist. However, after meeting a few commercial artists and discovering that it was not a particularly lucrative career, he needed a new plan. “They looked starving,” he said, “And it turned out that they were.” Garrison’s next idea was to pursue architecture and the third time, it turned out, was the charm.
Working as an architect appealed to Garrison because at the time it was still all done by hand, not by computer. He loved the physicality of the work and the fact that it provided both intellectual and creative fulfillment. He also loved that it gave him a chance to surround himself with things that he loved, like the smell of freshly sharpened pencils. Architecture is also what originally brought Garrison to Princeton as a college student. He chose the university because it would give him a chance to explore architecture, but study something else if he found out that he didn’t like it. After graduating in 1980 and working at a few architecture firms, Garrison returned to Princeton University to earn a master of architecture degree in 1983.
Next, Garrison moved to Montreal where he joined Peter Rose architecture firm. One of the projects he worked on was designing the Canadian Centre for Architecture, a museum and research institution founded by Phyllis Lambert, scion of the Bronfman family, who owned the Seagram Company.
At age 27, Lambert became the project architect for the Seagram Building in New York City — her father’s new corporate offices. She spent her life collecting artifacts related to the subject of architecture and urbanism and eventually created the Canadian Centre for Architecture to display her collection. While working on this project, Garrison spent five years traveling around the country learning museum best practices for lighting, storage, display cases, and more.
In the 1990s, as a result of a collapsing world economy and rising separatist sentiments in Quebec, Garrison decided to leave Canada.
In Canada Garrison had also met and married his wife, Helene Lemieux, who works as a content analyst at Dow Jones in its data strategy division. They moved to Princeton in 1993, when a former professor invited Garrison to work at Hillier Architecture.
Garrison was the head of educational design, which involved working on projects for colleges, universities, and libraries. Among the projects that Garrison worked on was the new Princeton Public Library building that opened in 2004.
In 2007 Hillier was sold to the Scottish firm RMJM, which had a total of 1,200 employees before the merger and 1,600 after. Garrison did not feel like he fit into the culture of such a large firm, and in 2009 he joined FXCollaborative, the New York City based firm where, he continues to work.
Thanks to his experience working on the Canadian Centre for Architecture and some projects he did during his time at Hillier, Garrison had an informed background in museum design. After beginning at FXCollaborative, he interviewed for the opportunity to work on the Metropolitan Museum of Art and although he came in second place, he met a lot of people in the city connected to museums. As a result, the head of Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation’s architectural committee invited Garrison’s firm and 12 others to submit museum proposals for a new Statue of Liberty Museum.
While in the process of applying, Garrison went to Liberty Island and met with then-superintendent David Luchsinger. Luchsinger explained that the idea for the museum originated when he got tired of visitors yelling at park employees because they couldn’t go up into the statue or otherwise have the experience that they had envisioned. Luchsinger also told Garrison that many people who get off the boat at Liberty Island immediately get on their hands and knees and kiss the ground.
From the beginning, Garrison and his team knew three artifacts that would be part of the museum.
This story moved Garrison and impressed upon him the important symbolism of the island and the fact that it was a sacred space. He wanted to create a joyous experience for visitors and an antidote to the frustration that so many people had coming to the island. Garrison believes he was chosen to design the museum over firms that specialize in museums based on the strength of their ideas that originated with this key concept.
Typically, an exhibit designer for a new museum is hired before the architect and the two work together to try to fit the building to the exhibit that will be housed there. However, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation put off hiring an exhibit designer until they secured the approval of the numerous entities that needed to sign off on the project to make it a reality.
These included both the New Jersey and New York State preservation offices, several Native American communities who had owned the land before the arrival of European settlers, and the National Parks Service. The Foundation also sought approval from the city of New York, even though it wasn’t technically needed, because they wanted to build consensus for the project and avoid potential backlash later on. In order to gain this approval, the Foundation needed a concept design. Therefore, Garrison’s team began to design the building with little knowledge of the exhibit that would eventually be inside.
However, even from the beginning, Garrison and his team knew three artifacts that would be part of the museum. The first two were full-scale renderings of the Statue of Liberty’s foot and face made from copper. The foot and face are extremely important artifacts that allow visitors to understand the scale of the statue and to see how thin the copper is and how the pieces of the statue were put together. But the third artifact, the statue’s original torch, turned out to be indispensable to the museum that Garrison ended up designing.
The original design for the Statue of Liberty called for the torch to be constructed from solid gold leaf. Then someone got the idea to make the flame into an actual source of light for New York Harbor, and it was transformed from a mostly solid object to one made mostly of glass. The torch corroded over the years, and when the statue was renovated in the 1980s the conservators said that there was no way for them to restore the torch. It was replaced by a new, solid torch that resembled the original plans.
Garrison and his team considered the torch to be the most significant artifact in the collection both because it had actually been part of the statue and because the torch plays a crucial role in the statue’s symbolic metaphor of liberty enlightening the world. One of the museum’s three galleries was designed to display the torch and therefore specifications like the height of the building and the angling of the glass were chosen to contain the torch, show it off, and make it visible from different locations including outside.
When visitors arrive at Liberty Island they get off the boat, come through the arrival pier, and reach an access area that ends in a spectacular view of Manhattan. The view shows the entire skyline — every major monument and tall building. Garrison said that his task in designing the museum was not to spoil this view. He added that the view is especially poignant because it is directly across from the site where the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers once stood. Garrison wanted to honor that view and the profundity of something being missing directly across from the world’s most famous monument to liberty. As a result, visitors turn to the interior of the island in order to see the museum.
Building on the island turned out to be harder than Garrison and his team thought. First, the existing service dock wasn’t strong enough to carry a concrete truck or a pallet of stone. Because of this, the team had to spend $1 million building their own service dock next to the construction site. Even with their own dock, the logistics of transporting construction materials to the island were not simple.
Garrison said that a typical concrete truck can transport between five to eight loads of concrete per day. However, getting the trucks to Liberty Island had unique challenges like waiting for favorable tides and security inspections by park police and K9 and in the end it would take eight hours to make a single delivery. “Our concrete was eight times expensive than anybody else’s concrete” even though there was nothing particularly special about it, Garrison said.
Some of the materials that Garrison and his team used for museum pay homage to the statue itself. The granite used in the museum is from the very same quarry that was used to create the base of the statue’s pedestal. Garrison noted that the granite used in the museum was sawcut by machine while the granite in the base had been hand-cut using chisels.
“Our granite is the same, but different,” he said. “We are looking both backwards and forwards.” The new museum also incorporates a lot of copper — the material used to create the statue itself. Garrison said that while the copper will eventually turn green, the team hopes that it will stay brown as long as possible so as to respect the unique green patina of the statue.
Concerns about climate and sustainability also played a significant role in the museum’s design. After Hurricane Sandy, there was apprehension about how the building would fare in a similar potentially catastrophic event. In order to make sure the building would be safe from storm surges and rising sea levels, Garrison and his team consulted with the National Parks Services, which looked at the worst case scenario for what sea levels will look like in 2100 and then built the museum another two feet above that.
Additionally, the museum’s base has slats that allow water to go in and out during an extreme weather event without flooding and therefore harming artifacts. The museum was also built to withstand 130-mile-an-hour winds, and the glass is so strong that it should hold even if a tree gets blown into it.
In addition to being strong, the glass has a dot pattern designed in conjunction with ornithologists and the Audubon Society so birds can identify the surface and not fly into it. The dot pattern is subtle, but effective. In the 11 months it has been up so far there have been no bird deaths, even though the island is on a migratory bird path.
The entire roof of the building is planted with a meadow of native grasses. The plants absorb water as it hits the roof and slows it down and filters it so that it can be released into the system in an environmentally safe way. The roof has the added benefit of super-insulating the building so that it never gets too cold or hot and energy costs are kept down.
Garrison’s team designed the museum to accommodate the clothing that visitors show up in, so it will be a bit cooler in the winter when visitors come in wearing their coats and other winter gear, but slightly warmer in the summer when visitors show up in t-shirts and shorts. This does not harm artifacts that need to be in specific environmental conditions because they are contained in climate-controlled display cases.
Inside the museum, there is an immersive theater with a program that tells the history of the statue. There is also a gallery where visitors can learn about how the statue was made and view a collection of objects that Garrison refers to as propaganda. Namely, these are objects that use the image of the Statue of Liberty to make some sort of political or cultural point. Far from the one-sided narrative someone might expect from the word propaganda, these object show how the statue’s image has been used to bolster all kinds of viewpoints, ideologies, and causes. This underscores the statue’s role as a universally known symbol.
In addition to the being environmentally friendly, the museum’s rooftop garden gives visitors more things to do on the island. It is a place where people can enjoy themselves by going for a walk, having a picnic, and exploring the habitat created by native plants and animals living together. The garden harkens back to Garrison’s guiding principle — to make visiting Liberty Island into a joyous experience.
Liberty Island is open daily from 8:30 to 5:30 p.m. Access is by ferry only, $18.50 for adults. Museum entry is free. Reservations required for statue access.