It only took a few decades for the Statue of Liberty’s lustrous copper to develop its signature green hue – a colour that can be found all over New York, if you look closely enough.
An iconic image
At 07:30 on a soon-to-be stiflingly hot late-June day, I boarded the ferry from Battery Park at Manhattan’s southernmost tip. The engine rumbled and the vessel swayed as crewmembers coiled heavy strands of sea-soaked rope, freeing us from our mooring. I watched the city shrink as we cruised into the harbour, acutely aware of the ceaseless thrum of New York City life – the thunder of subway trains, the cacophony of car horns – growing dimmer.
As we rounded the southern shore of Ellis Island, I saw the Statue of Liberty staring stoically out towards the open ocean, the flame of her torch winking in the sunlight. It was an image I had seen all my life, but never like this.
“I love seeing visitor reactions,” said National Park Service ranger Bryanna Plog, who has been stationed at the Statue of Liberty National Monument for more than a year. “Sometimes we’re on the public boat in the morning and it’s full of people who see her for the first time up close. They rush to the side, and the boat tips just a little bit. Seeing people’s reactions – I don’t think that part will ever get old.” (Credit: Miriam B Weiner)
An indescribable colour
“Recently I’ve been thinking about the colour of the Statue of Liberty,” wrote Ian Frazier in a 2016 article for the New Yorker. “That elusive, flickering, familiar, sea-polished shade of copper-green got into my head.”
Since reading Frazier’s article, it had got into mine as well. As I stood beneath the Statue of Liberty’s towering figure, craning my neck to admire her full 34m-tall figure (93m, if you include the base), I tried to find the right words to describe her signature hue – somewhere between mint and sea foam, with a slight essence of turquoise, I determined, depending on the angle. But that still didn’t feel quite right. “You just call it ‘Statue-of-Liberty green’,” Plog told me as we toured the new Statue of Liberty Museum, which opened in May 2019 near the foot of the statue and houses the original torch. (Credit: Miriam B Weiner)
Liberty Enlightening the World
French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi designed the Statue of Liberty, officially named Liberty Enlightening the World, using thin sheets of copper held in place by an immense iron skeletal structure engineered by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). When she first arrived at Bedloe’s Island, a miniscule blip of land in the middle of New York Harbor, in 1886, Lady Liberty looked different, her pointed crown and billowing robes glittering reddish orange against the steely blue water.
But that didn’t last. Within several years of her inauguration, due to exposure to the salty sea air at the height of the Second Industrial Revolution, Lady Liberty began to change. (Credit: Miriam B Weiner)
Unique to New York
Similarly to the way iron rusts, copper transforms when it oxidises, its changing chemical composition causing it to develop what’s called a patina, a film that covers the exposed metal. Over time, the patina transitions to a rich, chocolaty brown and then to a brilliant bluish green. “The colour of the patina depends on different chemical reactions, mostly how much ammonia or sulphur or salt you have,” Plog explained. “In New York, we have quite a bit of sulphur, mostly from air pollution, and, of course, chloride from the salt air, but very little ammonia, so we have a much greener statue as opposed to something with more ammonia exposed to it, which would be more blue.”
By the early 1900s, only a few decades after New Yorkers welcomed her to the city, the statue’s copper lustre had been replaced by the green patina. “If you had put the statue somewhere else in the world in 1886, she would have turned a slightly different shade of green,” Plog said. (Credit: Miriam B Weiner)
The colour of freedom
Lady Liberty stands as an emblem of the US’ highest ideals. The tablet she holds reads 4 July 1776, the date of American independence, and the torch she carries signifies enlightenment. The broken chains at her feet represent freedom from tyranny and oppression (many connect them to the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865). And for the millions of immigrants who passed by her en route to Ellis Island, the statue marked the beginning of a new life, one filled with hope and possibility.
The statue’s copper form is often associated with money. “When the Statue of Liberty was shipped from France, it was shiny copper – like a new penny,” explained Pascal Wallisch, clinical associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. “They wanted a shining beacon of democracy. The problem is we live in the elements, so it corroded very quickly. Here’s the irony: once it became that, now this colour is associated with freedom.” (Credit: Miriam B Weiner)
‘You see it all around you’
“When you have Statue of Liberty green on the brain, you see it all around you,” Frazier wrote. He was right: since reading Frazier’s article several years ago, I’ve noticed the distinctive colour in the ornate filigrees skirting roofs throughout the Financial District, in the tinted glass of Midtown’s skyscrapers and even on the window trim of my own apartment building in Queens. (Credit: Miriam B Weiner)
A beautiful barrier
Not just a pretty colour, the patina is a protective barrier that prevents further corrosion of the metal. Copper’s durability has made it a popular building material for centuries, while the naturally occurring colour transformation complements most building styles – particularly the ornate stone and brick edifices that dominated New York City’s skyline in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, many of which – like 40 Wall Street (pictured centre), a 72-storey Art Deco skyscraper now owned by US president Donald Trump – feature copper roofs, gutters and cornices.
“Now I think of the Statue of Liberty, no matter what,” Plog told me when I asked if she notices the colour elsewhere in the city. “You’re walking through New York and you see that green, and it just, sort of, looks like the statue.” (Credit: Miriam B Weiner)
A part of the city
The colour doesn’t just appear on copper accents; architects and designers have artificially incorporated the hue into the city’s skyline, using paint that mimics the statue’s iconic shade.
“Design has impact on psychological functions,” Wallisch explained. “Historically, that’s just what copper would look like after being exposed to the elements for a while. I would not be surprised if people now choose to use these materials deliberately… to capitalise on the association. Basically, the colour of corroded copper became the colour of freedom. Now, I might deliberately paint something that way.”
But Statue-of-Liberty green is more than just a colour. It’s a chemical compound: the physical amalgamation of the statue’s copper form with the salty air that greeted thousands of immigrants as they laid eyes on the New World for the first time, the reflection of more than 130 years of life in New York City. It’s something that paint can’t quite capture. (Credit: Miriam B Weiner)
A reflection of life in New York
Whether passers-by picture Lady Liberty when they spot a fire escape painted Statue-of-Liberty-green in the West Village or the distinctly hued tiles in the Canal Street subway station, Wallisch says it’s impossible to know. “Colour psychology is about associations; associations are about prior experiences; and prior experiences are very idiosyncratic,” he said, explaining that any connection people make between the colour and the statue are likely unconscious – if they even notice the colour at all. (Credit: Miriam B Weiner)
New York City has continued to evolve, and in recent years, traditional building materials like copper have made a comeback, with architects employing them in new and innovative ways. “It’s almost like a re-examination of these materials through a contemporary lens,” said Gregg Pasquarelli, co-founder of SHoP Architects, the firm behind the American Copper Buildings, a pair of copper-clad luxury residential high-rises overlooking the East River from Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighbourhood.
“We looked at every type of metal, but when we got to copper, we thought that it could be really beautiful in that it would arrive like a shiny penny and then patina into a rich, dark brown and then into a colour like the Statue of Liberty,” Pasquarelli said. “And as the city watches them turn green, it will help them think of that material in a way they haven’t before, and it’s an important environmental strategy.” (Credit: Miriam B Weiner)
Connecting to nature
According to Pasquarelli, solid materials like copper are more sustainable than many types of glass panelling, and he hopes the American Copper Buildings will encourage a relationship between New Yorkers and nature. “When you look at the green of Central Park, there’s a connection,” he said. Like patina, “It’s not painted, it’s not flat, it’s not artificial – it’s a live element.”
Although the buildings’ first tenants only arrived in 2017, the American Copper Buildings have already begun to darken. Pasquarelli estimates it could take anywhere from 15 to 50 years for them to turn green. (Credit: Miriam B Weiner)
A symbol to be interpreted
By 09:00, Liberty Island was swarming with visitors. As I followed the walkway around the base of the statue, I watched people pose together for pictures. Two men took turns waving a rainbow flag for the camera and were happy to share the colourful fabric with a family, the fathers hugging their children as the flag billowed behind them.
“She symbolises different things to New Yorkers than to other Americans, international visitors… And that’s another thing I love about her,” Plog said. “There are all these reasons why, historically, she’s here, but because she’s a piece of art, people can interpret her almost as much as they want – as whatever symbol of liberty or freedom that they connect with.” (Credit: Miriam B Weiner)
The colour of promise
Frazier wrote: “Now my eye constantly picks out elevated-train girders, footbridges, drawbridge houses, pipelines, fuel tanks, lampposts, window gratings, fence bars, guardrails and I-beams holding up interstate overpasses, all in their own versions of Statue-of-Liberty green, and they fasten me to the city.”
No matter where I go in the city, Statue-of-Liberty green appears, curling around a cornice or glazing a gutter. But when I spot it on a windowsill or in a tiled subway corridor, I see more than the statue: I see what has drawn millions of people to New York City from around the world.
The Statue of Liberty stands as a symbol of liberty and justice for all, but her vivid blue-green hue – bold, daring and one of a kind – has come to symbolise New York itself. (Credit: Miriam B Weiner)