The Constellation Restoration Effort - After Two Years

Louis F. Linden, Executive Director
Constellation Foundation, Inc.

Controversy has surrounded U.S.S. Constellation since the early postwar period. It has raged throughout the time it has been in Baltimore until the publication of "Fouled Anchors: the Constellation Question Answered." Many people are even today unaware that the ship is the 1854 sloop-of-war rather than the frigate of 1797. Regardless of the ship's true identity, one thing everyone has agreed upon is the deplorable state of the ship's repair. This paper will focus on the highlights of the last two and one half years, where we have been, where we are and where we are going. But first, a thumbnail sketch:

U.S.S. Constellation - Last Surviving Civil War Combatant

U.S.S. Constellation was launched at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia in 1854. Bearing the same name as the famous frigate of 1797, she is a sloop-of-war (this means she carried her guns on one deck) of 22 guns. Her original battery was comprised primarily of 8" muzzle loading shell guns. The ship is 179 ft. long on deck with a maximum beam of 41 ft. and draws 21 ft. of water. She displaces approximately 1400 tons and is the largest all-sail sloop-of-war built by the Navy. Constellation is "ship" rigged: each of her three masts carries squaresails with a fore'n aft sail or "spanker" on her mizzen mast. She set 20,000 square feet of sails and is the last all-sail warship built by the U.S. Navy.

In Baltimore - 1914

After a deployment in the Mediterranean, Constellation interdicted the slave trade off the coast of Africa from 1859 to 1861. She captured three slavers and saved a total of over 700 men, women & children from the defilement of slavery. One of the slavers, Triton, was the first naval capture of the War Between the States.

Constellation in Naples, c. 1856

Constellation then spent two more years on the Mediterranean station attempting to capture the Confederate commerce raider Sumter (captained by Raphael Semmes of St. Mary's Co., MD, later Captain of C.S.S. Alabama). The ship served briefly with Admiral Farragut's West Gulf Blockading Squadron. After the war she saw various duties, carrying famine relief to Ireland and carrying precious American works of art to the Paris Exposition of 1878. She served as a training ship for Naval Academy midshipmen from 1873 to 1893.

During World War Two she served as relief flagship of the Atlantic Fleet and flagship of Battleship Group 5.

In 1955 Constellation's dilapidated hull was delivered to Baltimore in a U.S. Navy floating dry dock. Decommissioned by the Navy, she had been donated to a local non-profit foundation. With little money and no government support it was nearly a decade before she was restored enough to allow the public aboard. She was configured to resemble the 1797 frigate Constellation which was built in Baltimore. In 1968 she was installed in her present permanent berth in the Inner Harbor. When Baltimore began its revitalization effort in the late 1970's Constellation served as the centerpiece for the Inner Harbor. The height of the pavilions at Harborplace was dictated by the height of her jib boom. Since then over seven million people have crossed her decks and countless more have been photographed with her towering wooden hull as the backdrop.

Constellation arrives in Baltimore - 1955

In 1994 her rigging was removed and she was closed to the public. A Navy survey showed her to be in an advanced state of deterioration. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke immediately appointed a Blue Ribbon Committee to Save the Constellation. The Board of Dir ectors of the U.S.F. Constellation Foun dation resigned in favor of the Mayor's Committee. The Committee formed the nucleus of a renewed and renamed Constellation Foun dation, Inc. which has raised more than half of the nine million dollars needed to save Constellation.

The Constellation Restoration Effort is the largest maritime restoration project ever undertaken by a non governmental agency. It is also technically the most innovative. Although much of her planking appears to be sound below the water line, most of the frames to which the planks are attached are dry rotted. To perform a traditional rebuild of Constellation would require demolishing and replacing almost all of the historical fabric of the ship and cost over $25 million. For those reasons such a process is not historically desirable.

The Constellation Foundation's repair plan will replace the ship's outer planking with a laminated wooden shell. This process, known as "cold molding," will restore her structural integrity, her water tight integrity and her historical integrity. She will be restored to the appearance she boasted at the beginning of the Civil War. By using modern techniques and materials in an appropriate way the project will save and preserve the maximum amount of historical fabric. Authentic masts and rigging will once again soar into Baltimore's sky and interpretive panels throughout the ship will pro vide information about the ship's history and struc ture as well as information about her designers, builders and sailors.

In the Beginning, there was 1,400 tons of rotting vegetable matter...,
A Chronology

The Constellation Restoration Effort as we know it today was spawned in 1993 by a Navy inspection that reported a ship in an advanced state of deterioration. The U.S.F. Constellation Foundation, Inc. which had been the owner of the vessel since 1975 (it was the successor to the original donee, the Star Spangled Flag House) was given ninety days to come up with a plan to repair the ship. The Foundation's Board of Directors engaged G. Peter Boudreau, builder of Pride of Baltimore II, Lady Maryland and rebuilder of Gazela of Philadelphia, to come up with a plan to save the ship. A cursory inspection of the ship revealed extensively deteriorated frames, substantial hogging and poor water tight integrity above and below the water line. Boudreau estimated the price tag for a traditional rebuild would start at $25 million and require the demolition of seventy-five percent of the ship.

Boudreau conceived a solution to the problems of watertight integrity and structural integrity that did not require the destruction of almost all of the historic fabric in the ship. At approximately this time the Mayor of Baltimore, the Hon. Kurt M. Schmoke, was apprised that Constellation was in danger of being taken away from Baltimore where she had resided since 1955. The thought of the City's best known and most photographed historical artifact being towed away was simply unacceptable. He created a "Blue Ribbon Committee to Save the Constellation" and named Gail Shawe, formerly the Executive Director of the Pride of Baltimore and Pride of Baltimore II, to head the effort. In March, 1994 the U.S.F. Constellation Foundation removed the rigging from the entire ship. The National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the ship on its list of most endangered historical sites in June of 1994. Bereft of spars or rigging the ship remained open to the public until September. The staff was cut to one ship keeper.

Meanwhile, in the nation's capital the Maryland delegation worked to obtain an appropriation within the 1995 defense budget to survey the ship to determine whether it could be saved and whether it was worth doing so. A $1 million appropriation was made but by the end of 1994 it was apparent the Navy would not disburse the money to the Foundation citing the lack of grant language in the appropriation bill. In December of 1994 the entire Board of Directors of the U.S.F. Constellation Foundation, Inc. resigned in favor the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Committee.

In February, 1995 the Foundation hired your reporter to become the Executive Director of the virtually bankrupt organization. The terms of employment were that yours truly had a job until the end of May or whenever the money ran out whichever happened last. Two items headed the agenda. The first was to create a plan that would fund the Boudreau repair program. The second was to put the plan into operation and raise a sufficient amount of money to begin the repair as soon as possible. The plan became a classical government-private sector partnership with the private sector, the State government and the City government each being responsible for one third of the cost of the project. The new Foundation Board of Directors took the plan to the governmental entities and received a positive response. The City agreed to a bond election to raise its one third share of the estimated $9 million cost of the repair. The Maryland General Assembly appropriated $500,000 in matching funds during its 1995 session to move the project forward.

It was hoped that the Navy would undertake the survey of the ship to enable the development of detailed repair plans. In March of 1995 the Navy announced that it would not remove the ship from the water for a complete survey but rather the Naval Historical Detachment Boston (NAVHISTDETBOS) would conduct an in-the-water inspection and then would attempt to reinforce the structure with wire rope and straps as was done to U.S.S. Constitution in 1927. The two week evolution took place at the end of March and beginning of April. Test bores were made in a number of structural members, marks for internal measurement with a laser transit were installed, the ship's interior was visually inspected and Navy divers measured the hogging of the keel. The ends were found to have dropped 36" from the midships section. The ship was surrounded with nylon strapping running under the hull at five points and loops of 1" wire rope run through the gunports athwartships. A "hogging strap" ran lengthwise over a crib built above the spardeck mainmast carlings. The following August NAVHISDETBOS issued a report affirming the worth of saving the artifact, proposing a traditional repair plan with a price tag between $25 million and $35 million. The Navy's report to Congress did not comment on the Foundation's repair plan as design and engineering efforts were still under way.

Dry-docking December 29, 1997

Throughout the summer the Foundation sought a source of working capital with which to mount a $9 million capital campaign. In late August the Foundation closed a $175,000 loan from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to be used to mount the capital campaign. On October 31 the Foundation announced its first large private sector gift, $300,000 from the Rouse Company, the developers of Harboplace. The following winter the Foundation submitted its repair plan engineering to the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA). NAVSEA approved the Foundation plan in May, 1996.

The Maryland General Assembly voted another $500,000 in the 1996 session. Shortly thereafter Baltimore City announced that funding from previously sold bonds would be available to fund the Constellation's repair needs alleviating the need for a bond election. That meant that City funds would be available starting in 1996 rather than mid 1997. When the Foundation announced on October 15, 1996 that it would go forward with the restoration plan it had raised a total of $5.2 million in cash and pledges.

The Repair Plan

The task of the repair plan is to restore structural integrity, watertight integrity and historical integrity to Constellation. Although much of the planking below the waterline appears to be in relatively good condition, the framing is severely deteriorated. During the 1960s & 1970s a substantial amount of topside planking was replaced as were numerous upper frame futtocks. However it now appears that none of the new frame futtocks were attached in any way to the remaining original framing. Essentially, the new planking and framing is held in place primarily by gravity.

In the process of replacing planking and framing, the exterior appearance of the ship was altered to simulate an 18th century frigate with an open spar deck. Chest-high bulwarks were added as was a massive hatch spanning the spar deck from mainmast to foremast. The lack of attached framing and the severance of the major tension member of the structure has clearly had a negative effect on the rigidity of the structure and its ability to resist the hogging moment.

One of the most obvious and pressing needs is to restore structural integrity to the structure. The task is complicated by the desire to preserve the maximum amount of historical fabric. Research into the ship's repair history by Don Birkholz, Jr. supports the conclusion that all of her major structural timbers below the water line are original fabric. This may even include a handful of timbers taken from the frigate and installed for auld lang syne. Most of these timbers were taken from stocks amassed pursuant to the Gradual Increase Act of 1816 and may predate the ship's construction by a substantial number of years. The Foundation's plan turns on the idea of saving and interpreting that fabric in perpetuity.

Frames replaced in 1960s are not connected to the structure

Once the remaining 25 inches of hog are lowered out of the keel, the topsides will be completely dismantled and reframed.. The entire shape of the hull has been digitized using laser surveying methods as have the location of all significant features. The surface modeling made possible by this technology has greatly speeded the documentation of the structure as well as the design of replacement framing. By matching the hull form model to John Lenthall's original design drawings we have also conclusively determined the artifact's identity, laying to rest the longest running and most vitriolic controversy in modern maritime history.

After the reframing is complete, a layer of 1-1/2" tongue and groove planking will be fastened to the frames. The wood will be laid longitudinally. Core layers will be glued and fastened to the interior layers. These layers will be set at a diagonal angle; that angle and the precise thickness of the core will be optimized for strength qualities. The outer layer of the shell, also 1-1/2" thick will be lined off to be visually indistinguishable from traditional planking. Once the hull shell is completed a new gundeck will be laid in similar fashion. When the hull shell and gundeck are tied together they constitute a three dimensional monocoque.

Constellation in dry-dock.

Finite element analysis demonstrates that this structure will be capable of withstanding any loadings anticipated in its future service with a safety factor the size of Tulsa, Oklahoma. From the gundeck up the ship will be rebuilt with traditional methods and materials using the monocoque as a solid foundation. The shell will take the principal loads on the ship with the repaired framing supplying adequate transverse stiffening. Over all the structure will be stronger and more rigid and more resistive to longitudinal bending than it was in 1854.

Another advantage of the plan is that it assures watertight integrity, mitigating against the intrusion of rainwater which is so detrimental to wooden ships. The monocoque has no seams. Each glue layer forms a barrier which will prevent the influx of moisture thereby preventing dry rot within the shell or gundeck or the volume it defines. This will facilitate the stabilization of historical fabric within and lengthen the major repair cycle substantially. All remaining historical fabric will be extensively treated with sodium borate to kill any latent rot spores. Once treatment is completed, a program of desiccation will be undertaken to reduce the moisture content of the historical fabric over a number of years to prevent renewed infestation.

The replacement of planking and decking with laminations is justified within the historical context and comports with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Vessel Preservation Projects (see Standards for Rehabilitation). Planking throughout the ages has been considered more or less sacrificial as has decking. It is in the nature of their functions that this is so. Replacement of planking in kind would require replacement of virtually all of the framing as well. This is the result of years of refastening and the infestation of rot. Virtually all of the ship would be thrown away simply to accomplish that. It could be likened to destroying the village in order to "save" it. The present plan facilitates displaying and interpreting the historical fabric rather than putting it in a landfill.

Along with structural integrity and watertight integrity the Foundation aims to restore historical integrity to the ship. Anachronistic features installed mostly in Baltimore since 1955 (but some as early as 1913) are being removed after being thoroughly documented. The Foundation has instituted a Historical Advisory Committee to review plans for the ship's appearance and interpretation. We expect to configure the ship as it appeared at the beginning of the Civil War. Little graphic evidence of this period remains and many details will of necessity be extrapolated from the appearance of other vessels of the period. Spar and rigging dimensions will be taken from period tables of scantlings and equipment as well as existing wrought iron hardware.

The ship will be substantially interpreted, something she has never enjoyed. It is anticipated that graphics and text panels will facilitate self-guided tours by adults and children alike. The interpretation will focus not only on the ship and its structure but also on the technology of the time, the people who built her and the mission for which she was designed.

Restoration in the Future

The Foundation's budget does not allow for a complete restoration. Many details will remain. A short list would include ordnance, gunport doors, galley equipment, ship's boats and associated equipment, replacement of magazines and water tankage as well as interior joinerwork. The task of reducing the moisture content of structural members will go on for a number of years. This work will have to coexist with normal day to day operations, viewing by the public and organized educational programs. It is anticipated that a vibrant volunteer program will be created during the present repair phase. This volunteer program will be an integral part of the continuing restoration once the ship returns to Pier 1.

A unique aspect of the present repair plan is that it is reversible. At a future time the shell and gundeck could be removed and replaced in a traditional fashion or otherwise. The way is left open for technologies or circumstances which are perhaps not even conceivable presently.

Future restoration plans cannot be sufficiently addressed outside of the social and economic context in which the ship finds itself. In an ideal world we would be able to save and sustain the ship justified entirely by its unique and valuable historical status. That is no longer true if it ever was, more's the pity. Constellation will have to earn her keep.

In the last twelve years she was open to the public, the ship averaged 266,000 paid visitors a year. She is without a doubt the best known artifact in the City. The role of tourism in economic development is quantifiable and significant. In 1988, the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development Office of Research developed formulas to measure the impact of "tourist" attractions on the state economy.

Based on the State's formula, and an admission fee of $3.00, the "average" of 266,000 visitors a year to the Constellation would generate $798,000 in direct tourist dollars once she is reopened to the public. That, in turn, would be leveraged in the broader economy to produce over $42.3 million in gross sales, nearly $740,000 in employee income and more than $89,000 in State taxes. More recent studies have directly examined the impact of "historical" tourism. Universally the studies report that historically oriented visitors stay twice as long and spend twice as much as others.

The Rudder

The implications for continued restoration and maintenance are obvious. One of the most challenging tasks facing any entity attempting to raise funds for vessel preservation/restoration is the perception that vessels are giant holes in the water into which one throws front-end loaders full of cash. People of our ilk can probably justify such actions with little or no problem. Most of the unenlightened world cannot. Therefore, we must demonstrate that our technical solutions solve or ameliorate nontechnical, primarily financial difficulties. Technical virtuosity, as satisfying as it might be, can only be one aspect of an overall solution to the question of preserving old vessels. A holistic approach revolving around long-range planning and fiscal responsibility is a necessary precondition to successful historical preservation.

Work in Progress April 10, 1997

Previous repairs used toxic fungicides requiring full body suits & respirators.

With the spar deck completely gone work is focused on removing topsides.

Constellation gets a nosejob prior to stem replacement.

Removals will continue to the waterline.

Return to the Preservation Conference Schedule page.

Published by permission


Copyright © 1997 Constellation Foundation, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
Legal Notices and Privacy Policy
Version 1.04, 14 July 1997