Grime Fighter

updated 07/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

BALANCING ON SCAFFOLDS THREE STORIES above the U.S. Capitol's East Plaza, Linda Merk-Gould aims a high-pressure hose at the head of the 130-year-old lady, letting loose a blast of water that dislodges particles of grime and grit. As the mist clears, she climbs down. "People are always surprised when they see me," says the 5'1" restoration specialist. "They never expect there's a woman up there."

But up there is where Merk-Gould, 40, will be until September, when the sheen will have been restored to the 19½-foot-tall Statue of Freedom that has perched atop the Capitol since Abraham Lincoln was President. After a loose piece of bronze from the statue was discovered in 1988, the Architect of the Capitol decided to take a closer look. Decades of exposure to the elements and acid rain had eroded the statue—modeled by sculptor Thomas Crawford—and pollution had left it coated with a sticky black film.

In May, thousands watched as the 15,000-pound Freedom was airlifted by helicopter to the ground. Before it is hoisted back, Merk-Gould will repair tiny holes with threaded bronze pins and spray the sculpture to restore its historically correct bronze-green patina. The total restoration cost of $750,000 has been privately raised.

Because most pieces Merk-Gould restores are stationary, jobs often mean time away from her husband, Robert, a financial consultant and daughters Rebecca, 4, and Katrina, 2, of Westport, Conn. Still, she connects with the figures she works on, which have included the Statue of Liberty. "Most statues look good far away or up close but not both," she says. "But with Freedom, whether you're three feet from the face or 30 feet down on the ground, it looks good."

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