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The Statue of Liberty as you've never seen her before

A virtual tour of Lady Liberty
A virtual tour of Lady Liberty 04:12

Last summer, architect Paul Davidson spent ten nights inside of the Statue of Liberty. From 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., he and his team carried out a first-of-its-kind laser scan of Lady Liberty, capturing the statue's interior during the hours when it wasn't packed full of tourists.

Correspondent Conor Knighton asked, "Do you look back at those ten nights and think, 'Oh, man. I could've been doing it now during the daytime?'"

"I know!" Davidson laughed. "This is, like, the perfect time to be surveying, outside and in, for sure."

Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are currently closed to all visitors, shut down due to COVID-19. Which actually makes this the perfect time to debut some of Davidson's work.

The images he captured during those long nights have just been turned into a virtual tour. Now, all those who can't visit in person can explore the statue online like never before.

A view from inside the Statue of Liberty's crown.  National Park Service

"You can get into the crown and kind of view everything in 360," Davidson said. "You can go up to the torch and get a view of that. You can climb up the arm."

The virtual tour includes many areas that would traditionally be off-limits to visitors. Davidson's team also laser-scanned every nook and cranny, and getting that data was no easy task.

"Really the biggest challenge for survey that the statue presents is the fact that it is never still; it's constantly moving in the wind," he said. "And when you're surveying, you want it to be static. But we were in that torch and [the wind] was probably five or ten miles an hour, and it was swaying, really, like three or four inches. It was kind of like being on a boat."

Technicians scanning the interior of the Statue of Liberty.  CBS News

The statue was meant to sway. Its flexible support system was designed by French architect Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel. (Perhaps you've heard of his tower in Paris.) When "Liberty Enlightening the World" was dedicated in 1886, it was the highest structure in all of New York City – a triumph of engineering, and an instant international icon.

Davidson said, "I think about the conditions under which that was done, and it was for nothing more than to celebrate democracy and freedom and liberty."

An interior view of the Statue of Liberty.  National Park Service

He has been documenting the statue as part of the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey. The new virtual tour is just part of the project. The new scan will also serve as a high-tech, three-dimensional blueprint for everything from research to reconstruction – if, God forbid, anything ever should happen to the statue.

"This is a record that has many uses down the line," Davidson said. "If they do need to make some alterations, for social distancing even, they've got a complete 3D model to map that stuff out."

An interior view of the Statue of Liberty.  CBS News

Whenever the statue eventually reopens, touring its tight interior spaces will likely be done very differently. But there's still something powerful about being in there in person. As Davidson points out, a virtual visit is nice, but it's no substitute for the real thing: "It's the visitors who circulate through the statue who kind of enliven the space, right? The beam that they touch every time that they go up the stairs, or the metal tread wearing thin in the center from people passing through. [With] all those visual cues, you start to feel the presence of how many people have moved through this space for 130 years, and you can basically reach back in history and feel something from that."

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Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: George Pozderec. 

See also: 

From May 2019: "Sunday Morning" correspondent Martha Teichner reports on the opening of the $100 million Statue of Liberty Museum on Liberty Island in New York Harbor, telling the story of the creation of the most recognizable symbol of America.

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