By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Just joking. "I mean, that's not a goal of mine or ours," Lawton adds, his face growing serious, "but apparently that's a goal of theirs, to kill us." -- Jared Jacang Maher
175 South Federal
9:03 a.m.There she stands, emanating majesty from her tidy brick pedestal: Lady Liberty. Lovingly fashioned from 250 pounds of galvanized sheet metal by the late Bob Ramsour, she's served as a beacon for commuters on Federal since the early '80s, and Bob's daughter Sherry Ramsour-Held, who today runs the family business with her brother, Bo, would love nothing more than for her to keep doing so forever. But the ravages of time continue to take their toll, and the relentless march of progress threatens to extinguish her glow once and for all.
An overflowing scrapbook kept in Sherry's office reveals how closely the statue's history is bound with that of its creator and the enterprise that dominated his career. Bob Ramsour was born in 1928 in the very place where he would work for more than half a century; before the building became a business, it was the Ramsour family home. His brother, Bert, established Federal Heating here in 1939, but Bob bought him out in the mid-'40s, soon after returning from a military stint. The price was certainly reasonable. "He paid $1,500 for the building, the business and a truck," Sherry says. The purchase also helped him find a lifelong companion: Bob fell in love with Barbara, who would become his wife, after hiring her as a bookkeeper for the shop.
In his early years at Federal Heating, Bob delivered propane to neighborhood customers and converted antiquated coal furnaces to natural-gas usage. But he found his niche offering sales, installation, parts and service for heating and cooling systems, and these remain Federal Heating's specialties. Such chores require metal-craft skills, of course, and Bob developed his so well that he spent much of his free time in his garage building increasingly elaborate sheet-metal sculptures that he'd display in front of the store. He assembled a robot, a knight in shining armor and a series of tin men, including a funnel-capped skier that looked especially good during snowfalls. Just in time for the country's bicentennial, he also completed a red, white and blue Uncle Sam.
But Sherry considers the Statue of Liberty to be Bob's greatest work. He thoroughly researched the original in New York Harbor to make sure the proportions and dimensions were accurate, and spent the better part of two years putting his own version together. The completed statue was fully functional; its crown and torch even lit up.
The results of Bob's labor were impressive enough to land the statue on the September 1983 cover of SNIPS, "a journal of constructive help to the sheet metal, air conditioning, warm air heating and roofing contractors." But it also lured vandals, who made off with the statue's head a year or so after Lady Liberty made her debut. When Bob arrived at work and saw that his masterpiece had been decapitated, he was furious. Fortunately, the noggin proved too heavy to haul very far, and a police officer found it in an alley a few blocks away.
Despite the occasional dent or ding, the statue has stayed mostly intact since then -- unlike the building itself. Several years ago, pranksters rigged the gas pedal of a stolen sedan and pointed it directly at Federal Heating; the vehicle zoomed across the boulevard and crashed through the front window. Alerted at home that there was a car in her office, Sherry rushed to the scene, and soon noticed the sticker affixed to the wreck's bumper: "Shit Happens."
But if the car missed the statue, the elements have not, and the Lady now requires the sort of good going-over that Bob used to provide. He ran Federal Heating's day-to-day operations through the '90s, and even after Alzheimer's began to rob him of his memories, "he'd go out and shag parts we needed," Sherry says. Bob died in 2004, ten months after Barbara passed away.
Bo and Sherry have tried to stave off any further deterioration of the statue by repainting it; they chose bronze because the green Bob had covered it with "always looked terrible," Sherry says. But they've been unable to find anyone to do more extensive repairs, including replacing missing coils of hair. "Tin work is an art, and people who can do furnaces can't do that anymore," she explains. "We've tried to hire people, but they don't want to mess with it."
So how Ms. Liberty looks today will be the way she'll stay unless she has to be moved -- and that's a very real possibility. There's been talk of widening Federal in front of the building, Sherry says, and while she generally supports the idea, one plan she's seen would eat up practically all of the property between the curb line and the street, leaving no room for the statue.
If that prospect comes to pass, the statue could always be moved to the current Ramsour homestead, where all of Bob's robots and tin men are stored. But Sherry doesn't think the block would look quite right without Lady Liberty -- or Federal Heating, for that matter. "I'll be here until the day I die," Sherry says. "And I hope she will be, too." -- Michael Roberts