Help is on the way for rotting Constellation

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

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke appointed today a panel of prominent business and civic leaders to help save the historic but decrepit Constellation before the old ship rots away or is reclaimed by the U.S. Navy.

"It's an important symbol to the city. It's an important part of our history," Mr. Schmoke said at his weekly press briefing. "It's been an attraction for tourists for many, many years."

"We think it should be an important part of Baltimore's future," the mayor added.

Mr. Schmoke appointed Gail Shawe, former executive director of Pride of Baltimore Inc., to lead the rescue of the Inner Harbor landmark -- the subject of a recent Navy report on its sorry state.

Ms. Shawe said repairing the Constellation will cost at least $5 million and perhaps "a lot more."

"It's my expectation that these funds will come from everywhere," she said, citing federal, corporate and foundation support.

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, in being questioned yesterday about her expected role in renewing the ship that was formally %J announced today. "We're 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.

In addition to Ms. Shawe, the mayor's 12 other appointees are expected to become members of the U.S.F. Constellation Foundation Inc., the private, nonprofit corporation that owns and operates the ship. The 12 are:

Chip Mason, chief executive of Legg Mason Inc.; Richard Swirnow, president of Harborview Properties; Michael Cryor, executive vice president of the Susan Davis Cos.; former mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III, partner in the D'Alesandro, Miliman & Yerman law firm; Dale Garvin, general manager of the city's Hyatt Regency hotel; and Linda Jordan, executive assistant for the Maryland Port Administration.

Also, Mathias J. DeVito, chairman and chief executive of the Rouse Co.; Michael Riley, vice president of NationsBank; Vera Hall, City Council member; Walter Sondheim, senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee; Robert Hillman, partner in the Whiteford, Taylor & Preston law firm; and Russell Frisby, partner in the Venable, Baetjer & Howard law firm.

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 back the ship.

If the Constellation is not repaired, Ms. Shawe said, the Navy would probably haul her to the Coast Guard Yard in Washington and offer her to another group in another city to maintain.

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

The Constellation's last major overhaul was 1979-1980. The extent of the decay since then was discovered in 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 that 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 says the ship's maintenance needs have outstripped the foundation's $650,000 annual budget, most of which comes from tourists' admission 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.

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