Aug 19, 2010
Efforts in Philadelphia to Save Showpiece Ships
Efforts in Philadelphia to Save Showpiece Ships
By BILL MARSH
New York Times, 8/19/2010
PHILADELPHIA — They made an impressive display of America’s seafaring might, the aging maritime stars moored along both sides of the Delaware River.
There is the 1892 cruiser Olympia, the oldest steel warship afloat, whose guns and those of the ships it led blasted away a Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, announcing America’s arrival as a naval power. The ocean liner United States still holds the record for fastest westbound trans-Atlantic crossing. And the nation’s most decorated battleship, the World War II-era New Jersey, repelled swarms of enemy aircraft.
But to their devoted keepers, the state of the historic trio is a depressing comedown from past glories. The ships are struggling in a world of threadbare private support and unpredictable government grants. Two of the three have barely avoided closing, or worse, with cash infusions that buy time but fall far short of saving them.
The most endangered, the Olympia, a National Historic Landmark, needs $10 million for hull repairs or it could go to a watery grave within three years, inspectors say. The owner, the Independence Seaport Museum, may close the ship this fall and dump it at sea to make an artificial reef. The museum and its ships have drawn about 90,000 visitors annually.
The hollowed-out United States has been rusting downriver since 1996, awaiting its last voyage to the scrapyard. A Philadelphia philanthropist, H. F. Lenfest, donated $5.8 million in June to buy the ship for a conservancy, which is pursuing development schemes, but the effort faces long odds.
The battleship New Jersey, docked in Camden, is in good shape physically, but it was nearly forced to close this summer after the State of New Jersey threatened to cut off $1.7 million in financing, about half its budget. Its paid staff was cut to 11, from 58 people four years ago, who oversee 250,000 visitors yearly.
Creative fund-raising is a priority. Jim Schuck, the ship’s president and chief executive, said that a line of Battleship New Jersey wines — a “battleship red” and “battleship white” — had sold 1,500 bottles in its first two months. A battleship beer is coming.
Many of the 100-plus historic Navy ships in American ports are in need of money. The Olympia may be the most important of those, said Jeffrey S. Nilsson, the executive director of the Historic Naval Ships Association.
The cruiser is a bridge between the great sailing ships and the advent of steam power. It is the last American warship to have both masts for sails and smokestacks to vent its muscular steam engines, which could burn through 20 tons of coal an hour.
Fixing the Olympia amounts to a roof and basement job. Leaks in decks have been patched in 1,200 places. About 70 tons of concrete poured over the original Douglas fir deck to seal it must go; then all of the wood must be replaced. Floating steel museum ships should be dry-docked every 20 years for maintenance; the Olympia has been marinating in the Delaware without ever drying out, since 1945.
It is loaded with original features in good condition. Its innovative engines, with their triple-piston steam loop, look ready to roar anew. The Olympia was the first American warship equipped with refrigeration, which put an end to rampant food poisoning of sailors. The admiral’s richly appointed rooms are intact and polished.
“The aesthetic they were going for was a gentleman’s smoking room in London — overstuffed chairs, very dark wood — that feeling of empire,” said Jesse Lebovics, the Olympia’s chief caretaker.
James W. McLane, a member of the museum’s board, said several groups were interested in restoring the ship but might not have the needed money. “We’re open to other people coming forward, but we’re running out of time,” Mr. McLane said.
Downriver, a conservancy dedicated to restoring the ocean liner United States is negotiating to buy the hulk from the Norwegian Cruise Line with $3 million from Mr. Lenfest, a former cable television mogul. Another $2.8 million should cover about 20 months of maintenance while the conservancy tries to find someone to develop the ship, perhaps as a floating hotel or casino.
Mr. Lenfest has a personal tie to the 990-foot ship, which was launched in 1952. Some of its watertight doors may have been built by his father, a naval architect, at his machine shop. Conservancy staff members are looking for those doors; the ship was stripped down to its structure by its various owners. Some saw its potential as merely scrap, and lots of it: at 990 feet, it is longer than any building in New York is tall, save the Empire State and a few spires.
The New Jersey has about a year to operate before it will require a cash infusion from its namesake. The United States has about two years to get a plan financed. The Olympia is not as lucky. Its owner says it will close to the public by Nov. 22. There is no viable plan to save it.