Category: Archive

Liberty Day

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The Syracuse-raised tinsmith, actor, reenactor and teacher has spent a good deal of his time over the past decade working at the Statue of Liberty and at Ellis Island.
For most of that period, the statue itself has been off limits to the public, having been shuttered on Sept. 11, 2001. It will be open again from this Saturday, July 4.
“I’ve been begging for them to reopen it for years,” said Heaphy, who aside from doing restoration work inside the statue does reenactments at the base.
Many visitors arrive at Liberty Island fully expecting to be allowed to go to the top of the statue. “I’m the consolation prize,” said the 6-foot-3 Heaphy, a graduate of the New York University Tisch School of the Arts.
In his 19th century tinsmith’s costume, the 49-year-old tells people about how Lady Liberty was built. He also regales them with stories of more recent vintage — like how when working in the well-heated crown, he cooled his soda by lowering it on a string out of the window. Visitors love the image of a bottle of coke dangling in front of the statue’s eye.
Then there’s the episode about him staying overnight, the only person known to have done so in the monument’s 123 years.
“There are few people qualified to do sheet-metal theater,” he said, referring to his combination of careers.
One of his skills has been in short supply in recent times. Heaphy said a friend who was working on a major restoration of Colonial-era homes in the New York area ran into a problem with tin. “What he found was it was very difficult to find craftsmen that knew the old trade,” he said. So, with Heaphy’s help, he organized classes in tinsmithing and other old crafts.
Heaphy know-how in the trade dates back to before 1886, the year that the Statue of Liberty was brought to New York’s harbor. The first Dennis Heaphy started learning tinsmithing as a 13-year-old in 1879. He was a trained artisan when he won a series of contracts in 1892 to make splashguards for horse carriages in the growing city of Syracuse.
The family business is now in its fourth generation. There might not be a fifth. The current Dennis Heaphy, who has no children, has offered to teach the trade to nephews and cousins. “They’re not being forced to do it. I was,” he said. “They have the option to say ‘no’ and they have said ‘no.’

Staying overnight
“I didn’t really want to learn it,” remembered Heaphy, who was one of five children. “I was put in the shop at 11 years of age. His brother began in the family business even earlier, at 6. “It’s just the way it was. It wasn’t child labor,” he said, adding that he got $20 a week.
“I inadvertently learnt a trade that would come in handy,” he said. “Not to disparage other trades, but if I were laying tiles I wouldn’t be working in the Statue of Liberty.”
Nor would he have had the highly unusual experience of staying in its crown overnight.
At the time, he was repairing all of the brass windows and the crown, but could only get in after the tourists had left at 6 p.m. The last boat departed at 10.
“To be able to make that boat, I would have to stop working at quarter after 9.
“It wasn’t working out,” he said. “I decided I would stay overnight.”
He’d brought a bedroll to put on the floor of the crown when he couldn’t work any longer. But he found that the statue’s movement was not conducive to sleep.
“It was moving about three inches,” Heaphy recalled. “When I was up in the torch at one time, that was moving about five.”
He found working until midnight on South Island, which was then in a state of considerable disrepair, an even odder experience in some respects.
“It’s a bizarre place to be,” he said. “A whole different world being out on that section of the island. Liberty Island is not bustling, but it’s alive. The Park police are still patrolling at night. It’s well lit. But Ellis Island is really creepy.
“I was hoping for the paranormal,” he said “If there are ghosts anywhere, they’re going to be on Ellis Island.”
He even called them to see if they’d come out. “But, nothing,” Heaphy said. “Too bad.”
Working that one night in the crown also had its eerie side. “Let alone that I’m plying the trade of my great-grandfather, which has been passed down to me, but I’m working in the top of probably the most recognized symbol on earth,” he said.

Family business
His great-grandfather was the son of Famine immigrant Thomas Heaphy, who “wandered into the valley” 161 years ago. The Heaphys are one of the oldest Irish families in the city, but when the tinsmith is asked his ethnic background, he sometimes just says “Syracuse.”
“If you’ve been anywhere for 161 years, you’re from there,” he said.
The family business began as a small shop on the banks of the Erie Canal, but after his marriage, great-grandfather Dennis Heaphy moved to a building owned by his wife’s family and there it thrived through the 20th century.
There were the inevitable spin-offs in roofing and heating with everything centering on the hardware store. The two 7-foot tin men out front became one of Syracuse’s best-known landmarks.
Heaphy’s grandfather had seven children, all of whom worked in the business at some point. Most of them went on to a variety of careers. One, for example, has recently retired from a senior academic post at Johns Hopkins University.
His father, a salesman, decided after he got married to try his luck in Daytona, Fl. “His mother, my grandmother, would go down there frequently and beg him to come home,” Dennis Heaphy said.
He gave in and returned. “I’m very glad he did,” said Heaphy, who was then 2 1/2. The family later renewed its acquaintanceship with Daytona, which is where his father now lives in retirement. (His mother died in 1985, at age 51.)
James Heaphy ran the business in conjunction with his nephew until his death in 1998. Dennis Heaphy then sold off the main property and retired the tin men. He now works in a smaller shop that specializes in historical restoration.
The tinsmith also has a home in Jersey City, near to his New York City job. If the weather isn’t wet, he cycles the bridge that connects Liberty State Park in Jersey City to Ellis Island. It takes just 20 minutes.
But one of the several programs he has developed for Ellis Island and Liberty Island over the years takes him to schools far beyond the city’s boundaries. It’s called “Board of Special Inquiry.”
In it he plays a Russian immigrant who has arrived at Ellis Island 100 years ago. Three teachers play the judges and the students ask questions after he’s made a statement. He’s sent out of the room while the children decide whether to allow him into the country.
“There is no greater satisfaction than at the end of the program, when I’m, hopefully, allowed to stay in the country and these studenst jump and scream,” he said.
They feel part of the decision. The immigrant invariably wins, but there has to be a vigorous debate among the students for the program to be effective. “They’ve deliberated on its merits,” he said.
“The opportunities that working with Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty have given me have built an extremely fulfilling career,” Heaphy said.
It’s also given him an invite to a perfect vantage point this coming Saturday. All those who work at Ellis Island and Liberty Island will gather for a picnic to celebrate the statue’s opening and to watch the various fireworks displays around the city.
It’s likely to be a very special and memorable July Fourth.

For more about Dennis Heaphy go to www.ellisislandreenactment.com

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