Constellation repair effort founders


The U.S. Navy has sunk the Constellation Foundation's plans to use $900,000 from a federal appropriation to move Baltimore's leaking sloop-of-war to a dry dock at Fort McHenry for inspection and a start on repairs.

The decision, made public yesterday, is a deep disappointment to members of the reconstituted foundation. They had hoped the money would jump-start their repair efforts and serve as a catalyst for a multi-million dollar fund-raising campaign.

"It leaves us nowhere," said Gail Shawe, who is leading the foundation's efforts. She said the future of the 142-year-old warship may now rest on the slender hope of obtaining help from the current session of the General Assembly.

"If we are unsuccessful in Annapolis, I think this ship is in real trouble," Ms. Shawe said.

Members of the city delegation have been asked to seek $3 million through the Appropriations Committee from the state's capital grants program, she said. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has already pledged to request a $3 million bond issue in 1996. An additional $3 million would be raised privately.

In the meantime, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes has been seeking a better deal from the Navy through the office of the Secretary of the Navy.

The Navy decommissioned the Constellation and turned it over to a Baltimore nonprofit organization in 1955 with no promise of any federal money. The ship needed millions of dollars in repairs when it arrived, and its local caretakers did the best they could to make it presentable.

A Navy inspection in 1993, however, found the ship badly deteriorated by time and the elements. Without millions of dollars in repairs, it was likely to be reclaimed by the Navy, and perhaps towed off to a backwater berth to rot. Its masts and rigging were removed last March for safety reasons and the ship was later closed to tourists.

Congress last summer authorized $1 million for inspections of the Constellation and the World War II aircraft carrier Intrepid docked in New York. The foundation had expected to get $900,000 or more to move the Constellation to dry dock for the inspection. That would have given the ship a valuable head start on repairs.

In a letter to the foundation last week, however, a Navy lawyer said the federal legislation gave the Navy legal authority only to inspect the ship. Consequently, the Navy will spend $265,000 to have a team from the USS Constitution in Boston inspect and stabilize the Constellation where it rests in the Inner Harbor. The work will include taking bore samples from the hull and sending divers underwater to conduct a video inspection.

Moving the ship was deemed too risky. "Our experts believe that, due to the age and condition of her hull, there would be a higher risk of damage during or subsequent to drydocking," said Stephen S. Honigman, of the Navy's general counsel's office. "An inspection pier-side . . . can be accomplished more safely."

It is also cheaper, he said, "an important consideration in this time of limited resources."

After inspecting the ship, Navy experts will do some stabilization work, and make recommendations and cost estimates for repairs. They will evaluate both traditional methods for repairing the ship in phases as money becomes available and the less costly, nontraditional plan proposed by the foundation.

A closer look inside

Charles Deans, director of the Naval Historical Center Detachment Boston, said his office had not yet received orders to do the work. But he said such inspections can be 90 percent as accurate and thorough as those conducted in dry dock. "It would be done as comprehensively as possible."

In dry dock, Ms. Shawe said, the Constellation would have had hull planks removed for a closer look at the ship's ribs and keel -- a major start toward repairs.

Instead, "all the Navy's going to do is do the survey and write the report," she said. The report will be useful, and the stabilization work will "extend her abilities to float a little bit." But on the whole, Ms. Shawe said, "it is not as good as getting her out of the water."

She also believes the foundation has lost access to the balance of the $900,000, and the boost that would have provided toward further fund raising.

"We expected the first million to act as the catalyst," she said. Right now the foundation has just $40,000, left over from a $50,000 grant from the city. "It's a lot easier to start with $900,000 than $40,000," she said.

Using traditional methods and materials, the cost of restoring the Constellation has been estimated at $25 million or more. Peter Boudreau, builder of the Pride of Baltimore II, has proposed a nontraditional repair plan estimated at $10 million.

"If we work really hard and are really successful, I believe we could come up with $10 million," Ms. Shawe said. "I know we can't raise $15 million or $20 million."

With Congress now run by Republicans, she said, "I don't think we can go back to Congress, quite frankly." That leaves the state, the city and private donors.

'Turning point'

"We will know in April whether we will get any funds from this session [of the General Assembly]. I think that will be a real turning point," she said. "I don't want to make it appear that way to the legislators, but I don't know how else to proceed, quite frankly."

Ms. Shawe said the foundation's board -- named by the mayor last spring to replace the prior board -- has decided to use the $40,000 remaining from the $50,000 city grant to hire an executive director to mount the ship's financial campaign.

Despite the disappointments, she said, "we should mount the campaign. Otherwise the ship is clearly lost."

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