Whether the USF Constellation, moored off Pratt Street these days, is the same frigate that was built here in 1797 or an 1853 reconstruction is immaterial. In the past 25 years, this old ship has become an important visual symbol of the city's rebirth and Inner Harbor renewal. For that reason, news that the Constellation is badly rotted and in need of expensive repairs is alarming.
Thanks to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Gail Shawe, a community-wide campaign is now under way to save the Constellation, the first ship commissioned in the U.S. Navy. Millions of dollars are needed by Baltimore's bicentennial in 1997.
This is not the first time Marylanders have been asked to save the Constellation.
A fierce campaign was waged throughout the early 1950s to rescue the ship from an uncertain fate. Its return to Baltimore was greeted by a parade, fireworks and 300,000 people. Years of controversy then followed. One city comptroller even recommended that the frigate be sunk to keep it from becoming a drain on the municipality.
In the end, the Constellation was restored. Since 1969, it has been part of the Inner Harbor.
A commission headed by Ms. Shawe faces an unenviable task. It has to establish quickly how badly deteriorated the old frigate is. Funds then must be raised to get the job done.
We urge Mayor Schmoke to consider whether money reserved for improving the Inner Harbor shoreline should be used instead to get the Constellation campaign going. The current plan to tear up Rash Field and turn it into crab-like mounds can be junked in favor of the Constellation.
In the long term, however, it is clear that Baltimore alone will not be able to take care of the Constellation. In its decades here, the ship has gone through several expensive repairs. Its future maintenance costs are certain to be high.
The frigate is still ultimately controlled by the Navy, although a 1954 act of Congress gave it to Baltimore. The Navy may not want to spend money on it, but the federal government should, either through the Park Service or some other agency.
We urge Mayor Schmoke to take the matter up with the Clinton administration. In doing so, he would follow precedent.
In the 1950s, when the Constellation seemed to be destined for scuttling, Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin, a former and future mayor of Baltimore, lobbied his friend President Eisenhower to save the ship. What was done then can be done now.