Fundraising plan intended to save the Olympia from sinking

The plan to reef the historic Cruiser Olympia off the coast of Cape May calls for a party – a giant party! Thirty ships on review, 21-gun salutes, international dignitaries, fireworks and 4 million people on the waterfront.

What retired Navy officer Glenn Porter actually has in mind is a traditional “naval gala,” a celebration that would honor and raise enough funds to preserve the world’s oldest steel warship in perpetuity.

The floating museum at Penn’s Landing is currently slated to close Nov. 22, and to eventually be sunk to serve as an artificial reef in the ocean near South Jersey. The Olympia has not been out of the water since 1945, and its hull is an eighth of an inch thick at spots. Inspectors have estimated the ship will sink in place within three years if nothing is done.

Dredging the marina and towing the Olympia to dry dock will cost an estimated $10 million; the repairs, another $10 million. The Independence Seaport Museum, which took possession of the ship in 1996, has sought help from the city, state, Navy, federal government and private funders to save the Olympia– without success.

Everyone recognizes the ship’s historic significance. Launched in San Francisco in 1892, the Olympia was Commodore George Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay. On the ship bridge, Dewey uttered his famous order: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” The Olympia devastated the Spanish fleet, beginning the Spanish-American War and launching the United States as world power.

The ship is a National Historic Landmark, a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is part of the Save America’s Treasures program.

But no one has been able to save her.

A model in New York

Last spring, Glenn Porter heard about the plight of the Olympia. “My reaction as a retired naval officer was, this ship has incredible value and needs to be preserved,” he said.

The interim CEO of the Seaport Museum, James McLane, was a member of Porter’s church. Porter contacted McLane and they discussed the possibility of a fundraising naval gala and production of a documentary film about the ship. In August, McLane returned to the museum’s Board of Port of Wardens, and Capt. James Gazzola took on command of the museum.

Porter’s plan follows the model of the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island renovation campaign in the early 1980s. President Reagan appointed Lee Iacocca to lead the effort, which included a naval gala and raised $285 million. “They had a great party up in New York,” Porter said. “That’s clearly the gold standard for something like this. That was over 20 years ago. I think if we had a naval gala here, we could raise $100 million that could be used for the museum ships here on the Delaware.”

Porter’s focus is the Olympia, but he is also thinking of the two neighboring historic ships in need of preservation and maintenance. “If we’re throwing a party like this on the Delaware, the USS New Jersey and SS United States have to be invited,” he said. “It would be appropriate to do something like that. If we raised $100 million, that would provide funding to keep these ships the way they should be for the future.”

Putting on the party

The first step in organizing a naval gala is getting the Navy to commit to it, explained Porter explained, a vice president of sales at a New Morgan, Pa., software company.

He has put in a request for an Aegis-class destroyer to run command control for a review of an estimated 30 ships that would participate in the gala. The money for such an operation is usually budgeted by the Navy long in advance. “What the Navy does is commit ships to various operations and duty calls. What we’re asking them to do, three years out, is to commit a ship to Philadelphia for a few days to participate in this. So that’s clearly an expense, but it’s a budgeted expense,” Porter said.

Local staffing would also be required. “We have naval reservists — I was one of them — that run naval control shipping units,” he continued. The reservists have to be on hand a certain portion of the year, including one weekend per month of active duty, which is also part of the Navy’s budgeted process. “The people would be available to serve as part of their normal duties.”

Porter also sees an international diplomatic aspect to the event. The gala could include ships from around the world.

“This might sound like a crazy thing, but it has been a naval tradition that at certain times nations will send ships to celebrate various events,” explained Porter, who participated in such parties in liberty calls when he was on active duty. The Statue of Liberty gala included Operation Sail, which involved visiting ships from other countries.

The U.S. has participated in naval galas in England, France and Australia, and an annual event is held in Japan. “There was a Commodore Perry who opened up Japan to the Western world in the 1850s,” Porter said. Each year, the port of Shimoda hosts the Black Ship Festival, a naval gala that has become a major tourist attraction.

The NATO staff in Norfolk could be enlisted to invite destroyers from allied nations, but also countries that do not typically share such maneuvers, such as India, China and Russia, Porter suggested. Each nation could be asked to send a visiting destroyer on this diplomatic mission.

Destroyers are about the same size as the Olympia, he noted. “The beauty of a destroyer is that it has a relatively small draft. You don’t want to bring an aircraft carrier in because it’s too big. The typical draft of a destroyer is maybe max, 20 feet. You can easily run a pass-and-review from the Walt Whitman Bridge, render honors, 21-gun salutes – the whole bit – cruise under the Ben Franklin, turn around and cruise back past the New Jersey and do the same thing. Picture 30 ships doing that.

Building an alliance

Porter has brought his idea to the city representative and the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, he said. “They listened. But at this point, I’m just a guy from Newtown Square who put a presentation together. What they said was, ‘We can’t put this event together, but we can promote it like mad, and we think our people will like it.”

Porter has also met with Gazzola, the new president and CEO of the Seaport Museum. “He’s a very good guy. He knows the port very well. And he’s interested,” but Porter hasn’t heard anything from the museum for a few weeks. He thinks he may have come on a little strong with a YouTube presentation that shows the Olympia sinking off the Cape May coast. “When you look at that presentation, it takes this into the real world and it becomes a hot potato. Frankly, I think it makes people uncomfortable. It’s going to upset people. But if that’s what it takes, then that’s what’s going to have to happen.”

The museum issued a statement to PlanPhilly last week: “John Gazzola is aware of Mr. Porter’s plan. The museum supports his, and all efforts to raise funds for the Olympia and other historic ships.”

Porter will need some high-profile allies to come forward soon if is his plan can be realized. Organizing a gala will take a couple of years, and the ship is scheduled to close next month.

“My feeling is, if the Navy steps up to committing to a naval gala and organizations come together like they did for the Statue of Liberty, the money will come to save the Olympia,” he said. “There will be some individuals who really like the idea, and everybody loves a party. I believe that funding will come that will give the first increment for the Olympia’s repairs.

“Clearly, what you have to have is an idea that excites people. What the gala does for the city is much like what the Republican National Convention did: it brought business in. The way they’ve approached raising funds for the ship until this point is, their development people have gone out to philanthropists and said, ‘We have this wonderful piece of history. Will you contribute?’ In all honesty, that’s a very tough sale. It’s even tougher in this economic environment,” Porter said.

A Navy priority?

The big hurdle, Porter realizes, remains the Navy.

“I have zero clout with the Navy, I am a retiree, and that doesn’t mean they listen to me,” he laughed. “The sad dilemma of our military is, no one in the Navy gets promoted for advocating for a museum ship. Museum ships are for people who are usually on their twilight tour.

“For example, the USS Constitution, the sailing ship from the American Revolution, is still a commissioned Navy ship in Boston. It has a Navy commander who is in charge of it.

“But at the end of the day, getting the attention of someone in the Navy to something like this – that isn’t about ammunition or repair parts – this takes a backseat.”

When Porter graduated from Villanova University as a member of ROTC, he wrote his final report about a historic event, the sailing of the Great White Fleet in the 1900s. “Everybody else wrote about tactics, organization or leadership. History is not the type of thing that’s high on the Chief of Naval Operations’ schedule.”

A naval gala, with a parade, perhaps the President and NATO prime ministers, would be a “win-win all around. Imagine a party drawing perhaps 4 million people for three days to the city. This is the home of world democracy. If you’re going to show off America at its best, it’s right up there,” he said, nodding towards Independence Mall. “This will be a great place for a naval gala.”

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