Returning a ship to its glory

Project: An $85,000 cabin restoration of the Constellation is almost complete, three years after the ship's rotting exterior and beams were repaired

April 30, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Life at sea could be hard in the 1860s, but Capt. Henry Schreiner Stellwagen's quarters on the Constellation were pretty cushy.

He slept in a bunk rather than a hammock hung from hooks. He bathed in a small tub instead of washing with deck hoses as crewmen had to do.

And while the sailors' bathroom was on a plank suspended under the bowsprit, Stellwagen had his very own "seat of ease."

The captain's spacious cabin was his domain. He dined there, did paperwork, called misbehaving underlings on the carpet. Now, for the first time since the sloop was towed to Baltimore Harbor in 1955, it looks much as it did 140 years ago.

The $85,000 restoration of the cabin that is almost complete, except for a few finishing touches, is a sign of things to come for the Inner Harbor landmark. Three years after its rotting exterior and beams were repaired to keep it afloat, the focus has moved to the interior.

"The idea is to make the ship, not just from the outside but also from the inside, appear that the crew just got off," said Christopher S. Rowsom, executive director of the USS Constellation Museum. "They're ashore on liberty, and we are their guests on board."

On a recent tour, Rowsom rattled off several long-gone features he hopes to re-create: the spirit locker, which housed the booze stash; the manger, where chickens and other livestock were kept (though faux chickens may have to do) and the brig, or jail, deep in the ship's bowels.

There is even a plan to put water tanks with a capacity of 40,000 gallons in the hold, where a journey's worth of water would have been stored with other necessities.

The goal is to restore the cannon-laden warship's interior on its four decks as accurately as possible by 2004, 150 years after the Navy launched the Constellation in 1854.

"We still have a ton to do," Rowsom said. Asked about the total cost, he sighed and gave a "conservative" estimate of $1.2 million, not a sum the museum has on hand.

The work involves a mixture of repairing what's there and replicating what's not. About half of the ship's materials - including the cherry and white pine bulkheads one deck below the captain's cabin - are original, Rowsom said. Many other features have been lost to time.

Some of the more modern elements remain. A concrete floor marks the spot where sailors who trained on the Constellation during World War II took showers.

It can be difficult to get history right, and the Constellation is a case in point. For years the Navy and Baltimore residents thought the ship dated to 1797. Schoolchildren were taught that it was sister ship to "Old Ironsides," the Constitution, in Boston.

Quest for accuracy

The truth about its age did not surface until 1991, just before its leaky structure and exterior were overhauled to reverse the deterioration that on bad days admitted 5,000 gallons of harbor water.

For the captain's cabin, Rowsom and his museum team used several sources in their quest for accuracy: original plans, old photographs and general knowledge of how the Navy would have outfitted such a vessel.

The quarters occupy the aft, or rear, portion of the gun deck, one below the open-air spar deck that stretches 179 feet. It is a bright space, roughly 40 feet by 26 feet, and is dominated in the middle by the day room, with its long table for meals or meetings.

Off to both sides are smaller compartments: office, stateroom, pantry, twin washrooms. The Niermann Weeks furniture company made and donated a 14-foot cherry table. Shipwrights such as Paul G. Powichroski built a new bunk, settee and rudder cover.

"I can't express how happy I am to have something I have done in the ship," said Powichroski, the ship's manager.

To help fill out the picture of life on board, a recently hand-sewn frock coat hangs in the stateroom, complete with vest, trousers, shirt, cravat and hat. The museum added a 19th-century sideboard the Navy had kept in "deep storage."

Curator Kennedy Hickman has borrowed from museums two gleaming swords that belonged to Stellwagen and another Civil War-era captain, Commodore Henry Knox Thatcher.

Under the two men, the Constellation cruised the Mediterranean to protect American commerce and thwart Confederate raiders. Before the Civil War the ship led the Navy's West Africa squadron, intercepting slave ships and freeing thousands.

About 100,000 visitors come through the ship every year, many toting audio guides as they inspect the hammocks and the seafarers' menu, which included bottled sauerkraut juice to ward off scurvy. If Rowsom has his way, they will have much more to see.

Getting in gear

One coming project: to reconnect the steering gear to the ship's iron tiller and rudder, so visitors can see what happens when the wheel is turned, rather than merely hearing a description.

"We're not faced with the ship falling apart on us now, so we can put a lot of energy into re-creating what the ship looked like during the Civil War," Rowsom said. "She is the last all-sail ship built by the U.S. Navy, the only Civil War-era naval vessel still afloat."

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