Liberty Unveiled

Liberty Statue, South Penn Square, April 16, 1918. (PhillyHistory.org)

Liberty Statue, South Penn Square, April 16, 1918. (PhillyHistory.org)

Little “blue-eyed, pink-cheeked” Nona Martin, the five-year-old from Chestnut Hill, stood motionless, “awed by the numberless masses that stretched away before her vision down Broad Street, as far as the eye could see.” By her side, on the platform, was her grandfather, William G. McAdoo, the “tall, gaunt, commanding” Treasury Secretary. Behind them loomed the giant statue, draped in white.

The parade had started as the the clocks struck noon. Twelve hundred schoolgirls “dressed as Goddesses of Liberty,” escorted by the Police Band, marched northward from Broad and Jackson Streets. Each held in her uplifted hands torches of Liberty and the flags of France, England, Belgium, Italy, Canada, Japan, Poland, and, of course, the United States. Behind the “procession of the goddesses” marched 5,000 marines and sailors. The pageant was great; the crowd greater; the music spectacular.

Bands played “Over There.” Then Clarence Whitehill, baritone of the Metropolitan Opera Company, stepped forward. “A hush fell over the multitude. His voice rang out the first words of the hallowed ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’” (recently recorded by another baritone, Reinald Werrenrath, at Victor in Camden.) As Whitehill’s voice echoed over the silent crowd, “it was as though an electric current had been sent through the solid masses of humanity.”

According to the plan, at the conclusion of the singing, at the moment the words “Sweet land of liberty… wafted to the crisp Spring air from many thousands of throats,” McAdoo would pull the cord allowing “the veil to fall from the Statue of Liberty.” He then would announce the start of the Third Liberty Loan Campaign to finance The Great War.

But McAdoo had another idea. As “the last strains of patriotic song still were echoing down Broad street, over the heads of thousands upon thousands of men, women and children, between the walled land made by skyscraper office buildings,” he handed the cord, “the other end of which ran to the top of the white drapery” to his granddaughter.

The crowd fell silent in anticipation as the time had come to unveil Philadelphia’s plaster Statue of Liberty, a 29-foot replica of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s 151-foot monument in New York Harbor.

This Liberty-lookalike, mounted on a 22-foot base designed by architect John T. Windrim, had been the work of sculptor Max Voight, himself once an arrival from Germany among the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Voight’s international, hand-picked team of sculptors included an Italian, a Frenchman and a Russian: Salvatore Morani, Armand Maeme and Nathan Adelman. Their work on the statue had been followed in the newspapers and documented “by moving picture films,” as was increasingly the custom. Towering, 51-feet above Broad Street, Liberty’s flaming torch lit up Philadelphia’s nights and served as beacon, booth and site of symbolic gesture.

Unveiling the Statue of Liberty at start of Third Liberty Loan Drive, April 6, 1918. William H. Rau, photographer. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Unveiling the Statue of Liberty at start of Third Liberty Loan Drive, April 6, 1918. William H. Rau, photographer. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

“Each subscriber will be entitled to ascend the stairway to the foot of the statue and drive into the pedestal a large headed tack bearing his initials. This will transform the pedestal gradually from a wooden to a metal surface.”

As the gathered crowd stood in silence that April afternoon, Nona Martin “seemed for a moment lost as to her exact part of the affair. Her famous grandfather leaned over, spoke a word or two, and the child responded.  She gave a sudden, vigorous tug at the rope, while the draperies opened and fell, and Liberty—the personification of that for which America and most of the civilized world is now waging—stood revealed.”

“As the white sheeting fluttered to the base of the statue, the massed band struck up ‘America.’ … No less than 100,000 men, women and children joined in lifting the air as though in message to the Nation” that Philadelphians would soon part with another $136 million to fund a bloody war “in civilization’s and humanity’s cause.”

 (Sources from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Copy of Famous Liberty Statue Rising in Phila.,”February 10, 1918; “M’Adoo To Open Loan Drive Here; To Unveil Statue,” March 31, 1918; “Huge Crowd Electrified With Patriotic Fervor at Statue’s Unveiling,” April 7, 1918.)

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