Preservation Row: National fund established for Olympia

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has established a national fund for the Cruiser Olympia, the floating museum at Penn’s Landing that is in need of some $20 million in repairs, including the cost of towing the ship to dry dock.

John Brady, interim CEO of the Independence Seaport Museum, said the national fund is not an “active fundraising campaign,” but “more of an active repository” for donations. 

The USS Olympia National Fund is designed to complement efforts of the six groups, or “transfer candidates,” from around the country that expressed interest in acquiring the Olympia at a summit held at the museum in March. Each of those groups will be campaigning individually to raise funds to preserve the ship, Brady said. “With the National Trust behind it, donors have a guarantee that it’s a good place to put the money.”

The historic ship 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.

The museum had planned to close Olympia in November, following failed attempts to get funding from the city, state, Navy, federal government or private sources. The ship faced three possible scenarios: reefing off the coast of Cape May, scrapping, or transfer to another organization.

Launched in 1892, 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 is on the National Register of Historic Places and Save America’s Treasures program.

Brady said he could not predict how much the national fund might take in. “But it’s an important option to have in place for ongoing preservation of the ship. We’re grateful to the National Trust for stepping up and offering that.”

Brady, who joined the museum in 1983 and is the director of its Workshop on the Water, became interim CEO earlier this month, when it was announced that John Gazzola was leaving the post after just nine months. A marine transportation executive before coming to the museum, Gazzola had replaced Lori Dillard Rech, who had led the museum for less than three years. She had come aboard after John S. Carter was sentenced in 2007 to 15 years in prison for spending $1.5 million in museum funds to support his lavish lifestyle. Carter had been president of the museum for 17 years.

For information about the national fund, go to www.preservationnation.org/olympia.

Previous Preservation Row stories:
Girard Warehouses

PLICO Building

Garrett-Dunn House

Elstowe Manor

Germantown Town Hall

The Lazaretto

The Bouvier Building

Church of the Assumption

Emanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church

Bouvier Building reborn

St. Peter’s in Germantown

Keystone Bank Building

West Johnson Street

Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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