Syracuse Sheet Metal Man is Statue of Liberty's tinsmith

Ellen Leahy 06/11/10More articles
The Lady’s Man ...

How did Syracuse’s iconic sheet metal man meet Lady Liberty?

If you didn’t grow up in Syracuse driving past the man made of sheet metal on Geddes Street, perchance you have seen him in the Onondaga Historical Society’s lobby?

Syracuse’s metal guy was created by the West Side’s Heaphy family as a signpost for their long running sheet metal business and hardware store. What better sign, than one that displays what you do artistically, while also delighting young and old alike.

Rather than just a tin man, Syracuse’s Dennis Heaphy embodies the uniqueness of many of the Wizard of Oz’s characters’ desires. To the munchkins, he’s a giant of a man at 6’ 3” who can sing bass, baritone and tenor. He is also whip smart, loaded with courage, a seeker of justice, has a big heart and is in love with his home place of Syracuse. But more important to Liberty, he is a student of history, a man of the boards, a union actor (AEA), writer and filmmaker, who also works with the professional stage hands union (I ATSE). And that winding road lead to Lady Liberty.

Traveling to Ellis Island
While knocking around the theater scene in New York City, Heaphy was asked to design and build a stage for a troop performing on Ellis Island in New York’s harbor. That he did, and while on the property, he encountered the deputy director of maintenance for Ellis Island and also the Statue of Liberty, which are tied together as a national monument and tourist destination.

Noting Heaphy’s skills, the deputy director asked if he could take a look at the brass windows in the lady’s crown that were not closing properly. In a matter of moments Heaphy was able to get a window operating and diagnosed the fix for the rest of her panes. He ascended to the lady’s head each evening and worked until it was time to catch the last boat off the island. Setting up and breaking down each day was stringing the repair out, so he asked if it might be possible to stay overnight in order to get many of the easier repairs finished.

“I’m the only person who has slept in the crown overnight,” he said, “(she) moves a lot in the wind, which was unnerving, but not enough to make me seasick.”

He admits it was odd to be working in her head, concentrating at the task at hand, he said he would forget where he was and then his eyes would change focus and he would be looking at Liberty’s giant tablet outside the window.

That experience started a host of projects on the lady. He also is involved in the ongoing restoration of Ellis Island where he sometimes works late into the evening hoping to encounter some ghosts, but none have been forthcoming.

Being the resident tinsmith for the Statue of Liberty, he was asked by the superintendent to develop a show where he would demonstrate, in costume, how the statue was built. In the spring of 2005 he debuted How the Statue was Built, The Art of Repousse.

“For three years I performed Sheet Metal Theater,” Heaphy said.

The Tipp Hill Heaphys
The first Heaphy, Thomas, landed in Syracuse 162 years ago and still to this day Heaphy claims, not a one has been in the social notebook. Thomas came because there was work in the salt industry and on the canal.

Growing up in the family business on Geddes Street, Heaphy learned the trades. His love of theater came from his mother’s side. A beautiful woman, she had a beautiful voice, which could be heard Sundays at St. Patrick’s on Tipp Hill. In 1955 she participated in her generation’s American Idol, which was called, The Ted Mack Amateur Hour.

Dennis and his two sisters and two brothers went to St. Pat’s (West Side Catholic). Heaphy started in his family’s sheet metal shop at age 11. By age 15 he was a master of the trade, “I was raised in my own shop class,” he said.

Found at OCC
In the late 1980s Dennis found an additional calling at Onondaga Community College, where he studied Radio and TV production, preparing him to study film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“Nothing in my life would have happened if I hadn’t gone to OCC,” Heaphy said.

A student of history, he took his theater training along with him to the Ellis Island stage gig, and created a show where he reenacts an immigrant’s experience of coming to America. He takes this out to schools and organizations across the country. The audience participates in the interactive trial of Boris Krasnikov to see if he should in fact be allowed entry to the U.S. Boris’ brother, who arrived three years earlier is not able to attend the hearing, and sends a letter in his stead. The students sitting as judges ask Boris to read the letter aloud, but Boris has some difficulty reading. A member of the audience is asked to come up and help him with the letter.

During one performance a student put his hand on Boris’ shoulder to try and comfort him. Heaphy said as an actor he couldn’t break character, but he was stirred by the young man’s compassion.

“The production I developed at Ellis Island is a fulfilling experience, as an educator, and particularly poignant with the current national debate on immigration,” he said.

Essentially an educator
When Heaphy comes back off the road to Syracuse, he works as a substitute in the city schools as a physical education teacher.

He’s been involved in education for 25 years from a lot of different aspects: teaching assistant at NYU in journalism and film, private acting lessons for kids, teaching documentary film making and video production, producing his own reenactments from Ellis Island and substituting in the Syracuse city schools.

Besides being a tinsmith, and his work in education, Heaphy has worked on 70 films, does voice-over work and is the president of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The complexity of this man is really quite simple.

“I need to entertain myself,” he said.

More on Heaphy’s Ellis Island reinactment - ellisislandreenactment.com/.

TAGS: Syracuse Sheet Metal Man,Statue of Liberty official tinsmith,Syracuse,Ellen Leahy,American Civil Liberties Union,Ellis Island,Ellis Island stage,Onondaga Historical Society,Syracuse’s Dennis Heaphy,Ellis Island reinactment,Statue of Liberty
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