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The New York State Capitol gets its first new statue since 1898: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A massive stone carving at the New York State Capitol building has barely changed in 125 years. But as John Campbell of member station WNYC reports, it is about to get a new addition.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHISEL CLACKING)

JOHN CAMPBELL, BYLINE: Inside the building, a stone carver by the name of Adam Paul Heller is on a scaffold 40 or 50 feet up in the air. He's tap-tap-tapping away at the wall of a huge sandstone structure known as the Million Dollar Staircase.

ADAM PAUL HELLER: John?

CAMPBELL: Yes.

HELLER: Adam.

CAMPBELL: Nice to meet you, Adam.

HELLER: Great. Come on in. This is my little studio for the...

CAMPBELL: Oh, this is incredible.

HELLER: It's so nice.

CAMPBELL: The staircase is covered in carvings, plants, animals, mythical creatures and dozens of faces of governors, presidents, Founding Fathers and some unknown even to historians.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHISEL CLACKING)

CAMPBELL: Heller is carving the name of the latest person to grace the wall, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late Supreme Court justice and Brooklyn native. Ginsburg is the 78th famous face on the staircase and the first one added since 1898. She's the seventh woman. The first six were hastily added toward the bottom of the staircase shortly after it opened. That's when newspapers pointed out the original sculptures were all men.

MEREDITH BERGMANN: I studied the carvings of the women downstairs, and I find them a little primitive, very charming.

CAMPBELL: Meredith Bergmann is the artist behind the Ginsburg sculpture. In 2013, she crafted a bust of the justice after observing her in her office. That work depicted Ginsburg in her later years. This new sculpture is different.

BERGMANN: This portrait is more like the emblem of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. So it's her younger. She's in middle age. It's kind of how she is remembered.

CAMPBELL: Ginsburg's stone portrait was installed a couple weeks back, though there's still some cleanup work to be done, so it's blocked from public view. Jeanette Moy is commissioner of the state agency that oversees the Capitol. The stone carver invited her up on the scaffold for a sneak peek.

HELLER: Are you ready?

JEANETTE MOY: I'm ready.

HELLER: Good. There she is.

MOY: Oh, my God.

HELLER: She's very proud.

MOY: This is beautiful.

HELLER: She is.

CAMPBELL: Justice Ginsburg is staring back at them. Her white collar, her favorite one from South Africa, is carved with exquisite detail underneath her chin. It's a nod to the modest fashion statement she was known for. But it's missing a final touch. Clara Spera is Ginsburg's granddaughter. She says anyone who thinks of her grandmother sees glasses on her face.

CLARA SPERA: There was internal debate among the family and discussions with the governor's office and the artist about what style of glasses would be most appropriate.

CAMPBELL: Ultimately, they reach consensus. Ginsburg will wear big, round glasses, much like she did during her early days on the court. The artist sculpted them and had them cast in bronze. They'll be painted to match the stone and added to the sculpture in the coming weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) We shall overcome.

CAMPBELL: The Million Dollar Staircase is the capital's town square, where people hold rallies and protests for one cause or another when lawmakers are in town. There are chants and speeches that bounce off the walls and sometimes even songs, like this one from a rally last year. Ginsburg's sculpture will have a front-row seat, and her granddaughter says that seems right. In the '70s, Ginsburg wasn't on the frontline of protest, but she supported the cause of gender equality with her legal work.

SPERA: The sculpture will be looking approvingly and happily on those who choose to articulate their rights in that way without being necessarily a direct participant in that kind of protest and that kind of work but acknowledging that the two have to go hand in hand.

CAMPBELL: Governor Kathy Hochul's administration is expected to host a sculpture unveiling in August. For NPR News, I'm John Campbell in Albany.

(SOUNDBITE OF DE LA SOUL SONG, "GREYHOUNDS FT. USHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: July 11, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of the headline misspelled Ruth Bader Ginsburg's last name as Ginsberg.
Jon Campbell