'Deteriorating' Constellation to get lifeline from Schmoke

May 19, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

Alarmed by a U.S. Navy report on the decrepit state of the Constellation, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is expected to name a panel of prominent executives today to help save the historic ship before it rots away or is reclaimed by the Navy.

The mayor has asked Gail Shawe, former executive director of Pride of Baltimore Inc., to lead the rescue of the Inner Harbor landmark. Ms. Shawe said repairing the Constellation will cost at least $5million and perhaps "a lot more." Her goal is to complete the repairs in dry dock and return the ship to its mooring near Harborplace by 1997, the city's bicentennial.

"It's daunting," she said. "Certainly we're going to need all the help we can get. But it's also very important. I can't imagine the ship not being here for whatever reason -- whether it falls apart or the Navy takes her . . . and it winds up in Norfolk."

The ship claims the heritage of the original Constellation, a frigate built in Baltimore in 1797 on orders from President George Washington. In 1853, that ship was replaced by or reconfigured as a sloop of war, also known as a corvette.

If it is the ship built in 1797, it would be the oldest U.S. Navy ship afloat. But the ship's pedigree has been a matter of intense debate among naval architects and historians for half a century. The vessel was brought to Baltimore in 1955.

The mayor's 13 appointees are expected to become members of the Constellation Foundation Inc., the private, nonprofit corporation that owns and operates the ship. Ms. Shawe will become its leader.

The agreement with the Navy requires maintenance of the decommissioned ship "in such a manner as will not cast discredit upon the Navy or upon the proud traditions of this historic ship." Otherwise, the Navy can take the ship back.

Last summer, Navy inspectors found the Constellation to be "seriously deteriorated . . . [and] in need of major work throughout the ship."

Foundation treasurer Jack Ensor said his board welcomes the mayor's appointees. "There is no animosity whatsoever," he said.

"We're interested in seeing the ship stay here. We want to cooperate with the mayor's committee and Gail Shawe in any way we can. I think it's going to be good for all concerned."

Reflecting the importance of the 176-foot square-rigger as the centerpiece of the Inner Harbor, the mayor's appointees will include top executives of the harbor's most visible corporate neighbors. Among them are the Hyatt Regency hotel, Legg Mason, the Rouse Co. and Harborview Properties, along with several top law firms, the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Maryland Port Administration. Councilwoman Vera P. Hall will represent the city.

"They can't fathom what would happen if she [the Constellation] went away permanently, and they want to know what will go on there while she's in dry dock," Ms. Shawe said. "The thought of having that huge vacant space is pretty . . . unacceptable."

The Constellation's last major overhaul was in 1979-1980. The extent of the decay since then was discovered last August by a team from the Naval Historical Center in Boston that found the bowsprit and lower foremast so decayed that they posed "a hazard to the safety of the ship and possibly the visiting public." The foundation made emergency repairs.

In a formal report in October, the Navy said the ship was "seriously deteriorated." The inspectors found rigging, yards, planking, beams, hatches and other components throughout the ship in poor to very poor condition, with probable losses of structural integrity.

Wooden parts were cracked, split, rotted and patched. Rainwater and seawater seep in, and pumps remove 1,200 gallons of water daily.

The electrical wiring was strung with "a lack of . . . good wiring practices," the report said.

Mr. Ensor said the ship's maintenance needs have outstripped the foundation's $650,000 annual budget, most of which comes from tourists' admissions fees and souvenir shop revenues.

"We had no idea [the ship] had decayed so badly," he said. "Like any old house, you never keep abreast of it."

In the October report, the Navy gave the Constellation Foundation 90 days to respond. the foundation called on Peter Boudreau, builder of the Pride of Baltimore II, to devise a long-range plan to repair the ship, and the Navy relaxed its deadline. But the foundation had found no way to pay for repairs.

Reluctant to approach the financially strapped city, Mr. Ensor said, the foundation had planned to ask state officials for help. Although the Navy retains oversight, he said, "we get no federal money."

The ship's problems finally became public in March after damage from the harsh winter weather prompted the foundation to remove the masts and bowsprit.

Mr. Schmoke asked for a meeting with the foundation and moved to revitalize its membership. Ms. Shawe hopes to present a plan to the Navy within "a week or two."

Ms. Shawe oversaw construction of the Baltimore clipper Pride of Baltimore, which sank in a storm north of Puerto Rico in 1986 with the loss of four lives.

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