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February 4, 2013

Lady Justice became plastic in 1970s Norwich

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The Daily Star

---- — 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.

The restoration and repair of the statue was entrusted to the Cooperstown Graduate Program, through what was then the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, under the direction of Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon Keck. Faye Wrubel, a student of Professor Rostislav Hlopoff, volunteered to do the work.

With no chance of putting Lady Justice back on top of the courthouse, she was later placed in a display case indoors on the main floor.

In January 1978, a specially designated committee to oversee the $550,000 overall renovation project on the courthouse met Monday, Jan. 30, to decide on the replacement statue for the courthouse dome.

It was voted, 6-2, to authorize production of a plastic replica. There had been considerable debate since the previous summer on the choice of material, bronze or plastic.

The bronze replica came with a $14,750 price tag, while the plastic version would cost $10,250. The committee liked the lower cost, as well as the facts that the statue would be lighter and not require roof reinforcements, and would likely withstand the central New York weather elements longer.

This round of courthouse renovations was completed by 1979. The plastic replica was placed on the dome, and another plastic replica was created and placed in the chambers of the Chenango County Board of Supervisors.

The most recent renovations of Lady Justice came during 2012, in preparation for a celebration of the 175th anniversary of the Chenango County Courthouse on Saturday, Sept. 29. She was cleaned and re-sealed, and the gold dome received a new coat of paint.

This weekend: Some surprises and debates arose in a few Oneonta building projects in 1888.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.