A Civil War-era ship sails into a modern dispute Disabled man wants Constellation made wheelchair-accessible

July 22, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

In 1854 it would have been preposterous to suggest that the warship Constellation be made wheelchair-accessible. It was a place for able-bodied sailors to wield iron cannon and climb the lofty rigging.

But what about today? Can a $9 million project to restore the floating Civil War relic to its 1850s appearance accommodate electric wheelchair lifts or an elevator?

Robert Reuter and the Maryland Commission on Human Relations insist that it can. Reuter is a 50-year-old Baltimore engineer who has used a wheelchair for 20 years. His complaints about the absence of wheelchair access to the ship led the commission last week to file state discrimination charges against the Constellation Foundation, which is doing the restoration.

The Constellation Foundation, backed by the U.S. Navy, say wheelchair lifts would destroy the historic integrity of the ship. They'll have to defend their case before a state administrative law judge. No date has been set.

The case is another on a growing list of lawsuits across the country being filed under the 1990 federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires certain institutions to make "reasonable accommodations" for the disabled.

Prisons, landlords, store owners and others have complained that the costs of such alterations are often too high.

"It's not about me," Reuter said. It's about a ship that's getting $6 million in public money for historic preservation. He's just guy "who wants to take his grandkids on that ship to see our history."

The foundation has agreed to provide wheelchair access to its visitor center, and to the ship's top, or "spar" deck when it returns to the Inner Harbor next summer.

But the foundation's directors say they won't add stair lifts or elevators to move disabled visitors to three lower decks. That, they say, would threaten their primary objective -- to restore the Constellation to its 1850s appearance. "And certainly she didn't have lifts," said Chairwoman Gail Shawe.

"We may be taking a hard position, but it's not because we're not sympathetic," she said. "We want to do everything we feel is reasonable to be sure they have a first-class experience. I think there are ways to accomplish that short of putting lifts on the Constellation."

One way, she said, "is to make available extensive interpretive material -- printed as well as video and computer-generated materials -- to allow people to get really good 'tours' below decks."

Not good enough, said Reuter.

"Think of it as a 10-year-old," he said. As a kid, he was dazzled by the cannons, by how low the ceilings were, and by the color of the gun deck. "They painted the floors red. And when we asked why, they said it was so they couldn't see the blood."

All these things were below decks, Reuter said. "So all the kids with disabilities can't get in to see the neat parts of the ship."

Reuter gradually lost the use of his legs after overloaded shelving fell on his back in 1968 while he served as a medic at a U.S. Army evacuation hospital in West Germany. A widower with four grown children, Reuter works for a private transportation consultant.

He filed his complaint after a July 4, 1992, visit to the Inner Harbor. He and a friend -- who also uses a wheelchair -- were unable to get past a 2-inch ledge at the front door of the Constellation's Pier 1 visitors center. Access to the second floor and the ship, they were told, was impossible.

Under federal law, the Constellation is a place of public exhibition, entertainment and recreation. As such, it is required to comply with disabilities act regulations. But, there's a catch.

The Constellation is also a National Historic Site. And the disabilities act exempts historic structures if proposed access changes would destroy or threaten its historic significance.

The debate, said Tom Mayes, associate general counsel at the National Historic Trust, boils down to whether the lifts or elevators would significantly damage the ship's historic "integrity."

If so, the disabilities act would allow the foundation to accommodate disabled visitors in other ways, including video tours.

Shawe and her board insist that, as the last Civil War-era warship afloat, the entire vessel is significant.

"Our priority here was to restore the vessel as close as possible to the 1850s ship," she said. "This poor vessel has suffered enough from people not understanding what she really was."

The Constellation was built in 1854 as a sloop of war. But for decades after its arrival in Baltimore in 1954, it was misrepresented as a 1797 frigate of the same name. Past caretakers even altered its appearance to portray it as an 18th-century frigate.

The U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), which would have to approve any structural changes, agrees with Shawe. In a letter to her last week, NAVSEA's legislative affairs officer, Patricia K. Dolan, said installation of wheelchair equipment on the ship is "technically unsound."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.