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Protecting Lady Liberty

For native New Yorker Cynthia Garrett, MURP ’80, the Statue of Liberty has always been a familiar face. Now, she considers Lady Liberty a coworker.

In November, Garrett was named superintendent of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island, where she served as deputy since 1998 and acting superintendent since 2002. She oversees the operation and preservation of the sites, from budget matters to visitor services. She is revising the sites’ master plan that will guide their management over the next two decades and directs a project to rehabilitate the 30 buildings on Ellis Island that have been deteriorating since the 1950s.

While most days are spent “attached to the phone” and meeting visiting national and international dignitaries, Garrett says she makes a point to get out of her office on Ellis Island to put in some face time with her staff, visitors, and the sites themselves.

“It’s amazing to see the reactions of the public, whether they’re visiting for the first time or the fifth. It’s important to have that reminder of why I do what I do,” she says. “Everyone is fascinated by her beauty and what she stands for. Visitors are touched by being face-to-face with a universal figure that is a powerful symbol of American culture and the American dream.”

Garrett has witnessed firsthand how American landmarks evoke responses around the world. After graduating, she gained experience in project planning and historic preservation with the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, which later became part of the National Park Service. Through the World Conservation Union, she worked for two years in Tanzania at the College of African Wildlife Management teaching park planning to government and park officials from all over English-speaking Africa. She returned to East Africa every year for six years to conduct training workshops. “While I was in Tanzania, I learned how powerful icons such as the Statue of Liberty were when it comes to cross-cultural communication,” Garrett says. “When speaking to children, I would tell them I was from the United States—if they looked confused, I would hold my arm up like the Statue of Liberty. They would instantly understand me.”

Whether in Tanzania or talking with visitors on Liberty Island, Garrett notes that the public’s reaction to the statue is not always positive. “She also is very thought provoking and controversial. She stimulates discussions about the ideals she represents and whether or not those ideals have been achieved.”

Those ideals were challenged in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States—Garrett’s job changed overnight. “After 9/11, I learned more about security than I ever wanted to know—it has always been a concern for such important landmarks, but now security factors into absolutely every decision we make,” Garrett says.

“I came back to Ellis Island a few days later to thank the law enforcement and maintenance workers for keeping her safe. Just seeing that, in spite of everything, she was still standing—was overwhelming,” Garrett says.

After the attacks the park was closed for three months while Garrett and her staff put key security improvements in place. Liberty and Ellis Islands reopened in December 2001, and Garrett spent the next two years focused on work needed to bring visitors back inside the monument. The Statue of Liberty reopened in August 2004, bolstered by tighter security and safety measures, technological improvements, and increased accessibility for patrons with special needs. A new glass-ceiling viewing area enables visitors to experience the skeletal structure of the statue—and the artistry and architecture of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and Gustave Eiffel—from a different perspective.

While Garrett is glad the public is inspired by visits to Ellis and Liberty Islands, she says that sometimes inspiration gives way to fanaticism.

“I get some truly unusual requests for ‘special time’ with the Statue of Liberty,” Garrett says. “People want to get married in the crown of the statue and have requested special lighting or banners be placed on the statue for advertising purposes. But she is a special lady who needs to be treated with care.”

Garrett and her husband Billy live on Staten Island and plan to eventually retire in her husband’s home state, New Mexico. But Garrett says she will always have a special place in her heart for New York.

—Laura Ewald


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