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Special Report: Preserving the City's Recent Past

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By Alan Jaffe

What if the National Park Service didn't have the funds to keep the Liberty Bell from cracking again and crumbling? What if the city zoning board voted to raze Independence Hall and replace it with a tax-ratable high-rise? What if a developer wanted to transform Old City's old-fashioned colonial era homes into a post-Modern mall?

Fortunately, these historical treasures are not threatened by public neglect, funding crises, or fiscal progress. They are established icons of local history, attracting tourists from around the world and strengthening the identity of the city and the pride of Philadelphians.

But more recent icons of the city's past are teetering on extinction, partly due to economic conditions, the quickening pulse of 21st-century change, the slow process of restoration, and just plain bad luck. They are familiar sites that are fading from view, despite the pleas of preservationists about the holes they will leave in the urban fabric.

In recent months, the news has been breaking bad for two grande dames of the Delaware waterfront.

The Cruiser Olympia, a floating classroom for countless school kids in recent decades, has spent too much time in her berth at Penn's Landing. She hasn't been out of the water since 1945, her hull is dangerously thin, and the exterior decks are rotted. Estimated costs for complete restoration of the Olympia, including dredging and towing to dry dock: $10 million to $20 million.

The ship is not just a scenic addition to the riverfront; she is a symbol of American naval lore. Launched in 1892, the Olympia is the oldest steel warship still afloat in the world and the sole surviving vessel of the Spanish-American War. She was the flagship of Admiral George Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay. On her bridge Dewey uttered his famous order, "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley," before destroying a fleet of enemy ships.

The Olympia is owned by the Navy, but since 1996 has been under the stewardship of the Independence Seaport Museum, which has spent $5.3 million on her maintenance and repair. Two years ago, the museum identified the critical need to dry dock the Olympia. Support was sought from federal, state, city and private sources, without success, explained Lori Dillard Rech in January, shortly before she stepped down from her position as the museum's president.

In late Feburary, Peter McCausland, chairman of the museum's Board of Port Wardens, issued a statement that the museum has advised the Navy that it will "relinquish its stewardship of this national naval treasure and its valuable artifact collections. Because every staff and board member deeply cares about respects this historic ship, we stand ready to assist the Navy in an aggressive search to find a new home for Olympia and its related collections."

About a league downriver from the Olympia, the SS United States has been moored since 1996. Its towering funnels and faded glory make for a striking landmark on the South Philly waterfront.

 The former ocean liner was purchased in 2003 by Norwegian Cruise Lines, which is owned by the multi-national entertainment corporation Genting Hong Kong. But rather than restore the United States as a cruise ship, the company announced last year that it was seeking a buyer.

SS UNited States.jpgThis month, it announced bids were being accepted to scrap the ship, the maintenance fees of which are $800,000 a year, according to Steve Ujifusa, a board member of the SS United States Conservancy who has written extensively about its history and the battle for its preservation.

The "Big U" was designed by Philadelphia native and renowned naval architect William Francis Gibbs to be the fastest, safest and most beautiful ocean liner in the world.

She was completed in 1952 and still holds the record for the fastest transatlantic crossing: just under three and half days. In its heyday, the luxury liner carried the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace and Marilyn Monroe. But she also had the capability to convert into a 15,000-soldier troopship with hull and engine designs that were military secrets.

The nonprofit United States Conservancy, which last year received a $300,000 matching grant from philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest," has launched a renewed effort to save the ship from scrappers. The SS United States Plank Owner program has raised $30,000 so far, Ujifusa said. "The Conservancy has no illusions about the difficulty of the task ahead of us. The odds are definitely long. But given the danger she faces at this critical period, we cannot quit now."

Supporters have floated various ideas for the ship, including tourist attraction/museum or riverfront casino for Steve Wynn.

The ship, Ujifusa said, is more than the fastest ocean liner built. She is a floating works of art, one great Philadelphian's gift to his nation at a time when America was the peak of her industrial might. She was built to represent the best of America to the world, our 'ship of state.' At a time when ocean liners' names reflected national prestige, they would not have named just any old ship the United States."

 

Part Two: Landlocked landmarks threatened and lost.

 

Photos: Special Report photo:the Cruiser Olympia.  Text photo: SS United States

 

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