PlanPhilly

Candidates step up to care for Olympia

    • The world's oldest floating steel warship has been an icon of the Delaware waterfront for more than 60 years.
      The world's oldest floating steel warship has been an icon of the Delaware waterfront for more than 60 years.

A half-dozen organizations from around the U.S. – including one from Philadelphia -- have expressed interest in becoming the next steward of the Cruiser Olympia, the Delaware waterfront icon in need of serious repair.

At a summit conference on March 30 to April 1 hosted by the Independence Seaport Museum, the current caretaker of the historic ship, the museum sought ways to preserve the Olympia -- whose hull has deteriorated to an eighth-inch thick at spots -- and find a likely “transfer candidate.”

Capt. John Gazzola, president of the Independence Seaport Museum since August, said the “viable groups” who emerged during the summit include:

• A group from Newport, R.I., where the Naval War College is located;

• Maritime Heritage USA, an organization in the Washington, D.C. area that would like to use the ship as a facility for “wounded warriors” to find employment;

• The South Carolina Olympia Committee, from the region where the Olympia used to go to shipyard;

• The Navy Yard Association of Mare Island, in the San Francisco area where the Olympia was built;

• An unidentified city in Texas;

• And the Friends of the Cruiser Olympia, a Philadelphia organization that recently received nonprofit status.


“These are groups in different locations, with different ideas and different funding sources,” Gazzola said. “It’s not five or six groups from Philly going to Gerry Lenfest for funding. It’s a very exciting, different model that has emerged for this project.”

Back in the summer, the plan was to close Olympia in November. It was estimated that towing her to dry dock would cost $10 million and repairs another $10 million. Attempts to find funding from the city, state, Navy, federal government or private sources were unsuccessful. The ship faced three possible scenarios: reefing off the coast of Cape May, scrapping, or transfer to another organization.

Her historical value is well known. Launched in 1892, the Olympia is the world’s oldest floating steel warship. She was Commodore Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay, where she devastated the Spanish fleet, beginning the Spanish-American War and lifting up the U.S. as a world power. The ship is a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, and she is on the National Register of Historic Places and Save America’s Treasures program.

When Gazzola came on board at the museum, the decision was made to “keep her open until ‘last line.’ Last line is before a ship sails for shipyard. Because whether she is saved, scrapped or sold, she has to go to shipyard. There has to be some type of a repair period. The Coast Guard won’t allow us to sail her offshore or anywhere below the Navy Yard in the condition that she’s in. So we plan to keep her open until that time.”

But the museum won’t keep the ship.

“The Olympia doesn’t fit with our strategic plan,” Gazzola said. “We don’t care to be a museum with an international or national focus. Moving forward, we’re embracing a regional focus. The mission statement is to connect the Delaware River region residents with their maritime heritage, past, present and future. The Olympia does not have strong ties to Philadelphia,” he said.

The ship has been docked at Penn’s Landing for over six decades, and has hosted countless class trips and tours. “Is that a historical tie? Sentimential, emotional ties, sure. We love the ship,” Gazzola said, “but there are others who love the ship. So perhaps it’s their time to enjoy her.”

Bruce Harris, executive director of Friends of the Cruiser Olympia, doesn’t see it that way. “We think she’s in a great place now,” he said.

The Friends number 630 across the U.S., but the corps of eight full-time staffers of the two-year-old organization are based in this area. The technical staff is led by a naval reserve officer who is an expert in ship restoration, and the group has a lobbyist in Washington seeking Congressional support.

The Friends’ fundraising campaign is under way, with a target of $17.5 million. Donations have come mainly from independent private donors so far.

“We’re confident we can achieve our goal,” said Harris, who has worked for the National Park Service, served as a consultant to historic sites, and ran a tourism company for 16 years.

Gazzola said the museum is supporting all the contenders for the Olympia equally. “Which was the purpose of the summit: to get them involved and share the information that was available, and to discuss Olympia’s future with recognized experts in the preservation field.”

The most important topic at the summit was the timeline for saving the ship, Gazzola said. The two-year application transfer period was “recognized as being too short,” he said. “From the museum’s point of view, there is an expiration date on the ship. The surveyors told us that she should be floating for another five years. But vessels incur problems in that interim period. They just don’t sink one day. Generally they develop problems that need to be taken care of.

“We’re happy to discuss expanding the timeline, but it needs to be discussed, negotiated, with the bottom line being that Olympia be kept safe at all times.”

Next steps will include expanding the transfer application period and creating an advisory board of the summit partners – the museum, National Park Service, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Navy, NAVSEA (Naval Sea Systems Command), and the Council of American Maritime Museums. All the documents from the summit will be posted on the museum website, www.phillyseaport.org. The proceedings of the summit were videotaped by the Temple University American studies department.

“Right now the ideal condition for Olympia is that she’s saved for future generations,” Gazzola said. “And everyone at the summit agreed that saving her is more important than her future location.”

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About the author

Alan Jaffe, Contributor

Alan Jaffe has been a contributing writer for PlanPhilly since 2008, focusing on overlooked buidlings and historic preservation issues. He was a writer and editor in the newspaper industry for nearly 30 years, including eight at the Philadelphia Inquirer and nine at the South Jersey Courier-Post. He is currently the director of communications for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He is also an antiques writer and collector and the author of “J. Chein & Co.: A Collector’s Guide to an American Toymaker.”

ajaffe@planphilly.com



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