Famed Constellation to get new life as teaching tool 1854 wooden vessel to be transferred to Living Classrooms Foundation

September 19, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The ship that fought slavery, patrolled for Confederate raiders and carried famine relief to Ireland is on course for a new assignment -- as a teacher.

The board of the Constellation Foundation voted this week to transfer the 1854 warship to Baltimore's growing Living Classrooms Foundation.

"We felt that they were in a better position to do the educational programming and the outreach and interpretive work that's so vital to keeping the ship a viable member of the community," said Gail Shawe, chairman of the Constellation Foundation.

The board gave up the ship to save it, she said, acting in the belief that education is a more attractive cause for today's donors than saving old ships. Living Classrooms has strong ties to private and corporate donors, and an annual budget of $4.5 million.

Some observers worry that Constellation's continuing restoration -- and its long-term survival -- will be secondary issues to Living Classrooms, a concern the foundation says is unfounded.

"We will do everything we can to assure that the Constellation comes alive for the citizens of the state to enjoy, and is always taken care of," said James Piper Bond, Living Classrooms president.

Each year, the nonprofit organization provides 50,000 young Marylanders with opportunities for experiential learning and job training. Much of that takes place aboard the historic vessels it maintains, including the schooner Lady Maryland, two skipjacks and the Chesapeake buy boat Mildred Belle.

In 1996, it took command of the Baltimore Maritime Museum's World War II submarine Torsk, lightship Chesapeake and Coast Guard cutter Taney.

"There are literally limitless educational opportunities on the Constellation," said Scott Raymond, Living Classrooms' managing director. There is physics in its lines and pulleys, math in 19th century navigation, and history in its long service to the nation.

Forty job trainees have already helped to restore Constellation's spars. There will be more opportunities in its continuing restoration, he said. Much of that could take place at the foundation's Frederick Douglass/Isaac Myers Shipyard in Fells Point.

Shawe said her board of business and civic leaders "came together [in 1994] in a moment of crisis to save the ship," but had no desire to stay on after its repair and operate it.

The ship's transfer, if approved by the U.S. Navy and Baltimore City, would take place next summer after the ship is towed back to the Inner Harbor.

Uneasiness with the decision is said to have influenced Louis F. Linden's resignation in July as the Constellation's executive director.

Linden and Shawe declined to discuss any differences on the transfer, but Walter Rybka, an adviser to Linden, did not. Rybka is captain of the brig Niagara, in Erie, Pa. The Niagara is a replica of a Great Lakes warship from the War of 1812.

"Preserving the ship in perpetuity is not what that organization [Living Classrooms] exists to do," he said. To them, "the ship is a means to an end. The ship is not an expendable artifact, but it's just not the highest priority."

Shipwright Peter Boudreau, who is supervising the repairs, said the ship "needs to have the education-based organization that can get ahold of big givers and make it seem worthwhile."

But he worries that scarce dollars may now be spent on "coaxial cable and squawk boxes" for tourist displays, instead of cannon, rigging, brass fittings and other historic details vital to an authentic on-board experience.

Raymond said the ship's restoration will continue as part of its educational mission.

Living Classrooms has proposed a first-year budget of $955,000 for Constellation. It will have a full-time staff of 15, including six maintenance workers. Boudreau has been offered an advisory post.

First-year revenues would come almost entirely from a projected 260,000 paying visitors.

Ticket sales and souvenirs alone have never been enough to support the ship before, however, and by 1993, cash shortages led to a near-terminal case of rot.

"I don't believe it is possible to do a good job taking care of a large wooden ship and do it simply [with] admissions," Rybka said.

Living Classrooms hopes to do more. The ship will be part of the National Historic Seaport of Baltimore, which promotes combined admissions to harbor attractions and water taxi service.

Living Classrooms fund-raisers will sell memberships and build on a $2 million endowment the Constellation Foundation targeted in its $9 million campaign.

Shawe said that goal is now unlikely, and "until we have the $9 million in hand, I am not willing to say there will be anything left over."

Bond, however, said Living Classrooms will work "shoulder to shoulder" with Shawe and the Constellation Foundation to reach the $2 million goal.

Pub Date: 9/19/98

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