Constellation makes 'most endangered' list

June 15, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore's rotting Inner Harbor centerpiece, the Constellation, was listed today among "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The listing brings national attention to efforts to restore the 141-year-old sloop-of-war but no money. At least not right away.

"I'm really happy. I'm very pleased," said Gail Shawe, who was named two weeks ago by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to help plan and finance the U.S.F. Constellation Foundation's restoration efforts. She cautioned, however, that the listing "points a national red flag at us, saying we better find a way to preserve this vessel. The pressure is on."

A Navy inspection last August found evidence of serious deterioration and led earlier this year to the removal of the ship's rigging.

The Constellation traces its heritage, and perhaps some of its timbers, to the Navy frigate Constellation, constructed in Baltimore in 1797 on orders from George Washington.

In 1853, the 1797 frigate was hauled out and replaced by a new corvette, or sloop-of-war, that was given the old Constellation's name. Naval historians have argued since the 1940s over how much, if any, of the old ship was built into the new.

The 1853 ship that floats in the Inner Harbor today is said by historians to be the last all-sail fighting ship ever built for the U.S. Navy -- and therefore a priceless relic in its own right. Ships constructed later for the Navy carried both steam engines and sails.

The present ship chased slave ships off Africa, freed their human cargo and made the first naval capture of the Civil War. The ship also carried food to Ireland during an 1880 famine.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation issues its "11 Most Endangered" list every June after receiving about 70 nominations from volunteers across the country. The Constellation's plight was brought to its attention six months ago, said Peter Brink, the trust's vice president for programs.

Recognition comes "at a crucial time," he said. "There's a real emergency to stabilize the ship, restore it and get the rig back up. We feel we're giving an opportunity for that fund-raising committee to move forward."

Among the places on the trust's 1994 "11 Most Endangered" list are:

* Northern Virginia's historic Piedmont area, feared threatened by commercial development associated with proposals for a huge, $650 million Walt Disney Co. theme park, a thoroughbred racetrack, a 21,000-seat amphitheater and a Formula One auto racing course.

* Cape Cod, Mass., where a major discount store is challenging the Cape Cod commission's legal power to place curbs on commercial development. The trust fears that a loss in court might threaten village centers and water supplies and increase traffic congestion.

* The buildings of Harlem in New York City, where distinctive architectural and cultural landmarks are being destroyed, erasing the fabric of the black cultural enclave that flourished there earlier in this century.

Estimates of the cost of the Constellation's restoration range from $5 million to $25 million or more, depending on what a thorough inspection of the ship reveals and how the repairs are carried out.

Ms. Shawe rejects the most costly approaches as financially unrealistic. She hopes the Constellation Foundation will have a comprehensive restoration and financial plan ready by next fall for presentation to the Navy, which must review it.

Although the foundation owns the ship, the contract under which the foundation acquired it in 1954 allows the Navy to reclaim the vessel if it is not maintained properly. The Navy provides no financial help.

Recognition of the ship's importance by the national trust lends credibility to the restoration effort, "especially on a national scale," said Ms. Shawe. "I would expect it would make it that much easier to obtain some federal dollars."

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, has said he would seek an emergency appropriation of $1 million from the federal government to put the Constellation in dry dock, where it could be stabilized and surveyed for damage.

The trust's listing should also help attract the attention of private foundations and philanthropies across the country, Ms. Shawe said. "I would expect we would be able to get sizable grants from foundations," she said.

Independence The National Trust for Historic Preservation was chartered by Congress in 1949 to increase public participation in the preservation of historic places. Its $30 million annual budget includes $7 million allocated by Congress. It also relies on contributions from 250,000 members.

IMPERILED SITES

Here are the 10 other entries on "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places," according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

* Northern Virginia's historic Piedmont area.

* Cape Cod, Mass.

* The buildings of Harlem in New York City.

* Taliesin, architect Frank Lloyd Wright's home and office in Spring Green, Wis.

* The Texas Centennial buildings in Fair Park in Dallas.

* The Manuelito archaeological complex in Gallup, N.M.

* Natchez, Miss., where the antebellum cityscape is threatened by modern hotel and parking garage construction.

* The oldest surviving McDonald's, a 41-year-old restaurant in Downey, Calif.

* The 1874 San Francisco Mint.

* Virginia City, Mont., a former territorial capital and gold rush boom town.

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