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AUBURN - Copper John, the Auburn icon that was removed temporarily from the roof of Auburn Correctional Facility last month, is almost through his cosmetic surgery. The statue is in the final stages of being repaired and repainted in the prison's workshops.

Pete Longo and Milo Tanner, general mechanics in the prison's maintenance department, were busy Friday morning painting the statue with its first coat of blue and yellow, the state colors. A second coat will be applied, followed by a clear coat for protection. Steel structural rods that provide the statue's internal support had rotted out and were replaced.

About 10 civilian employees in the industry and maintenance departments have worked on the statue. No inmates have worked on the project, Superintendent John Burge said.

"We just felt that it was appropriate for the staff, not the inmates, to work on it," he said.

Copper John has stood sentry over the city since 1821, when he was placed on the peak of the original administration building while the building was still under construction. The original statue was carved of wood, but it was replaced in 1848 by a replica hammered out of sheet cooper by convict labor in the prison's foundry.

The last time Copper John was removed was when the administration building was demolished and rebuilt from 1938 to 1940. Legend has it that a scheduled visit to the 1938 World's Fair was canceled when officials, who had considered displaying him at the fair, discovered that the statue was anatomically correct.

This time around, Albany ordered the removal of the copper bulge in the crotch area of the statue.

"There was some general discussion held and it was determined we would make some alterations," Burge said.

Corrections officers good-humoredly protested that decision by ordering T-shirts that have a picture of Copper John and read "Save Copper John's Johnson."

In the next couple of weeks, residents might get an opportunity to judge for themselves whether the statue's flattened front is a public improvement or a personal intrusion.

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Eileen McHugh, the executive director of the Cayuga Museum of History and Art , hopes to display the statue so residents can get a face-to-face look at their city's history. Burge has requested approval to do so and is waiting to hear from Albany.

The roof's reconstruction is part of "a ton of construction" presently ongoing at ACF. Other projects include a renovation of the prison's mess halls and repaving the recreational courtyard.

"We're slowly getting her back the way she should be," Burge said.

The statue will be replaced when the roof work is complete, probably around mid-September. The wet season has delayed the roof work, which was supposed to be completed this month.

Staff writer Mary Bulkot can be reached at 253-5311 ext. 235 or mary.bulkot@lee.net

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