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Columns

February 4, 2013

Lady Justice became plastic in 1970s Norwich

I’d guarantee that if you stood atop the Chenango County Courthouse for nearly 140 years through all the elements, you’d look pretty tattered, too. This was the situation in the late 1970s for Lady Justice, the wooden statue having had an outstanding view over Norwich since the Andrew Jackson administration. The time had come for her retirement from the outdoors and a suitable successor. A debate began on whether she should be bronze or plastic.

Architectural gems such as the Chenango County Courthouse often need repairs and restoration, and there were several such projects during the 1970s and ‘80s. Lady Justice was taken down from the courthouse dome in 1976, destined for restoration and a far less rigorous retirement.

While the courthouse was under construction in the 1840s, the figure was being carved from American white pine in New York City. With the exception of the left arm and the right elbow, the figure was created from a large single log.

The artist was Charles Dodge. According to resources in the History Room of the Guernsey Memorial Library, the exact circumstances of the statue’s creation were not recorded, but it was known that New York was a center of ship building and related arts. Abraham Thomas, while employed in building the courthouse, purchased the statue in New York. Thomas probably knew that an architectural decoration like this would have to withstand some of the same environmental pressures as a figurehead on the prow of a seagoing vessel.

Throughout the years, Lady Justice acquired a number of features not intended by her carvers or owners. A hurricane claimed her left arm, which was replaced by a modified furniture leg. Coats of paint applied had no respect for the condition of the wood underneath, and moisture sealed inside the statue provided ideal conditions for decay. At one point a hole in the crown of the head had been stuffed with newspapers and covered with tar.

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