The Statue of Liberty National Monument celebrates its 125th anniversary this month, and it has a former Hartford resident to thank for the state of its structural health.
Edward Cohen, now 90 and living in Florida, was chief engineer on the 1986 restoration of the statue, a project spearheaded by the New York firm Ammann & Whitney. As he explains his career choice, Cohen came to engineering as a way to avoid a professional life in retail merchandising. The sons of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Edward and his brother Alexander were born on the family’s tobacco farm in Glastonbury, where they lived until 1926, when the family moved to Bellevue Street in Hartford.
A ham-radio buff like his brother, Edward worked at Wachtel’s Department Store on Front Street in Hartford while attending Hartford Public High School. After graduating in 1936, he worked at Brown Thompson and G. Fox & Co. department stores in downtown Hartford.
“I decided that retail merchandising did not interest me,” Cohen says, “but I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
Despite warnings from his high-school adviser that many college graduates were unemployed, Cohen applied to UCLA and was accepted. He shipped a trunk of belongings west and hitchhiked to Berkeley. Because he had graduated from high school early, the university required that he enroll for an extra year. Cohen couldn’t afford the extra tuition, so registered at the newly-opened Junior College of San Francisco.
“I knew I had to take a course that, when I graduated, I could use to go out and get a job,” he says. “It was either accounting or engineering, and I felt a much greater affinity for engineering.”
Among the engineering requirements was a course in surveying, which Cohen took during the summer at Folsom State Prison, before hitchhiking back east to visit his family. By the time he arrived, he had contracted a serious illness, and wasn’t able to return to school. But that didn’t put an end to his engineering education. In 1939, he took a job as a laborer with the Army Corps of Engineers’ levee-building project along the Connecticut River. He worked with a surveying party, eventually operating the transit.
After a year, Cohen was hired by the Town of East Hartford engineering department as a surveyor and project inspector. He decided to take the civil-service exam for the state’s highway department, and was one of only two candidates to get a perfect score; the other was a Yale graduate.
Cohen became an engineering aide for the state. When he saw how slowly higher-ups were promoted, he decided to try to finish his degree, taking courses at the UConn extension in Hartford and at Trinity College, and ultimately finishing up at Columbia University. He completed his coursework in 1945 and got a job through the Public Works Administration Project job, working with the Army Corps of Engineers. He did the surveying for Bradley Air Force Base in Windsor Locks, and then worked for a contractor on a low-cost housing project in Hartford.
Columbia professor Jewell Garrelts recommended him to Hardesty and Hanover, a bridge and design firm in New York. Cohen was hired, and worked on the Cross Bronx Expressway and on the renovation of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.
By then, 1949, Cohen was married and his wife was pregnant. When the projects came to an end, he joined Ammann & Whitney, where he worked for nearly 50 years. As the Atomic Age dawned in the ‘50s, Cohen and the firm were instrumental in developing design protocols for structures subject to atomic blasts and radiation, testing them in Nevada and the Pacific. Ammann & Whitney was commissioned to restore the west front of the U.S. Capitol.
A competitor architectural firm, Swanke Hayden Connell, was being considered as consultant on the Statue of Liberty restoration, and asked Cohen to be engineer on the project if it was awarded to them. Swanke Hayden Connell was commissioned in 1982, and Cohen became lead engineer. Lee Iacocca, newly famous for reviving Chrysler Corporation, was appointed by Pres. Reagan as head of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, created to raise funds for the restoration project.
Even with a nearly four-year timeline, it was still a rush job, Cohen says.
“”We found it wasn’t just a matter of cosmetics,” he told the New York Times in 1985. ”We just couldn’t buy her a new dress and dab on some new makeup. We had to fix her internal problems,” some of them dating back to the original construction in the 1880s.
The rededication, on July 4, 1986, marked the monument’s 100th anniversary and was presided over by Pres. Reagan and French President Francois Mitterand.
Cohen says he won’t be able to mark the statue’s anniversary on Oct. 28, 125 years after its initial dedication. But he still remembers the celebration a quarter-century ago. “The reopening was fantastic,” he says. “They had the biggest fireworks I ever saw, and debris from the fireworks was falling on us. There was a special orchestral work performed and a black-tie dinner. I got part of a bottle of Louis XVI brandy, given to me by the head of Rémy Martin.”
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