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Saturday, April 3, 2004

Liberty's self-interested custodians.

For almost two years I've been receiving annoying e-mail appeals from the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation asking for donations to help re-open the Statue of Liberty to the public. I never quite fathomed why the government seemed uninterested in one of our best-loved national monuments — compassionate conservatism, I guess, or maybe it was vengeance on the dastardly French. The Foundation raised more than $7 million, but the statue remains closed. (I had registered with the Foundation to use Ellis Island's fascinating on-line ship registry database when I was doing some genealogical research on Mrs Philocrites' family.) But the New York Times discovers that the Foundation is more interested in using Liberty to raise money than it is in re-opening the statue:

Millions of dollars held by the nonprofit Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation have long been available for the monument's emergency needs but went unspent. The National Park Service, which is responsible for the landmark, never asked Congress to provide the $2.3 million that they initially estimated was needed to do the work.

The Park Service wavered for at least a year on whether it even wanted to reopen the statue, then decided to turn the task over to the foundation. And once the foundation decided not to dig into its $30 million endowment and instead mount a separate fund-raising campaign, its goal steadily rose to $7 million as still more months went by.

Even now, more than two and a half years after the attacks that shut the statue, visitors will still not be able to go up to the crown, as they did in the past, because of the Park Service's continuing security concerns. As for the $7 million in public donations, it is unclear how much will be spent on safety improvements to open the base, as opposed to optional projects added later, such as a glass portal for viewing the inside of the statue.

The foundation, while choosing not to provide enough endowment money for the emergency exits and upgraded fire system necessary for the statue's reopening, at the same time paid $345,000 to its president, far more than is paid to chief executives at nonprofit foundations that support other parks. At the same time, risky investments contributed to a nearly $10 million drop in the value of its assets in the last two fiscal years.

Meanwhile, no other high-risk national landmark remains closed, including the Washington Monument and Empire State Building, leaving the statue alone as a shuttered symbol of the country's vulnerability to terrorists.

The reasons lie with the two main entities charged with protecting the statue, according to documents and interviews. The Park Service showed a pattern of inertia and disengagement from the task at hand. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, which some believe should have been dissolved years ago after fulfilling its intended mission to restore the landmark, showed more interest in preserving its considerable assets than in supporting the statue, even in the midst of a crisis.

("Extra fund-raising put off Statue of Liberty reopening," Mike McIntire, New York Times 4.4.04, reg req'd)

Shame on them. Oh, and shame on the skittish (or self-interested) owner of Boston's Hancock Tower, which has "permanently" closed its marvelous 60th floor observatory, invoking 9/11. Brian McGrory wrote a few weeks ago:

After the September 11 attacks, David D'Alessandro, the chief executive of John Hancock, ordered the observatory shut to the public and has refused to open it since.

"It is closed permanently," said Steve Burgay, Hancock's spokesman. "It is being converted into Hancock office space."

Let's think about that for a moment. In many ways, the Hancock Tower is like an aging, petulant actress. From a distance, she looks terrific, tall and shimmering and even glamorous. But up close, she makes only demands. The building has no grand lobby, no welcoming streetscape, nothing so much as a coffee cart outside its front doors.

Unless you happen to like wind, and then there's plenty of it. The Hancock has created the most ferocious wind tunnel most Bostonians will ever know. There are days when medium-sized dogs soar off Copley Square like kites, tails and all.

But for all its shortcomings, there was a tradeoff, and that came in the form of the observatory, the pinnacle of Boston, a grand public place where some people used to do nothing more than sit and think for hours at a time. Little did they realize that D'Alessandro was doing the same thing, wondering how to get these people out of his building.

Sept. 11 gave him just the excuse. A new reality, Hancock officials said. No express elevators. Security issues too cumbersome. Tenants gripped by fear.

And suddenly, the most coveted space in Boston was turned into offices. I see.

In contrast, the 86th floor Observatory at the Empire State Building has reopened to the public. The White House is again giving tours. The Skydeck on the 103d story of Chicago's Sears Tower, the nation's tallest building, is open and newly renovated, and so too the Hancock Observatory in Chicago.

But not here, not in Boston, not with D'Alessandro running the show. It doesn't matter that city officials believed the top floor of the tower was to remain an observatory into perpetuity. D'Alessandro simply took it away.

"I don't think the world's a safer place yet," Burgay announced yesterday. Thank you, Steve, for your take on international affairs. D'Alessandro didn't return a call.

("Towering insensitivity," Brian McGrory, Boston Globe 3.19.04)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 3 April 2004 at 7:18 PM

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