Will new ways to experience Olympia keep the cruiser afloat?

Come hell or high water, she stays afloat.

The cruiser Olympia, Philadelphia’s most historic ship, has survived wars, decommissioning, decades of neglect, a failed fundraising campaign, an unsuccessful search for a new home, and plans for an intentional sinking, or “reefing,” to serve as habitat for marine life.

But at age 124, the world’s oldest steel warship avoids a watery grave and keeps reinventing herself. For now, she’s the “Artship Olympia,” a floating exhibition of works by 17 artists interpreting life aboard the vessel and her tales of the sea.

The third year of Spruce Street Harbor Park has also brought new guests aboard Olympia during the ship’s extended evening hours. The seasonal park and beer garden has “completely changed Philadelphia’s perception of the Center City waterfront,” said John Brady, chief executive officer of the Independence Seaport Museum, Olympia’s steward. “The Harbor Park is just busy all the time, which has been a tremendous benefit to us. And the ‘Artship Olympia’ is a great a tie-in. It’s a hipper take on the ship.”

When the art exhibit and the Harbor Park close in the fall, however, Olympia will still face the need for a $20 million overhaul, which includes repairing a hull that has been in the water since 1945, replacing the decks, and completing pier work needed to accommodate the cruiser when she eventually returns to the Penn’s Landing Marina from the shipyard.

To meet that challenge, the Seaport Museum is moving forward with a campaign that will seek national support, led by a new entity, the Flagship Olympia Foundation.

A Naval icon

The best selling point to potential donors is Olympia’s remarkable history. She was launched in San Francisco in 1892 and deployed in 1898 as Commodore George Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay. Following the renowned order to his captain, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley,” Dewey led the defeat of the Spanish fleet, which signaled the rise of the United States as a world power. Olympia became a turn-of-the-century symbol of American patriotism.

During World War I, the ship served as a spectator vessel for dignitaries in Norfolk, Va., when General Billy Mitchell demonstrated the importance of the Air Force to the U.S. high command. She was present for the coronation of the new Russian czar, Nicholas II, in Vladivostok; then, at the start of the Bolshevik Revolution, she was sent to Murmansk to show support for the White Russians. She also carried home the body of the Unknown Soldier from France in 1921.

“She got all these jobs because she was fitted out as a flagship,” explained Brady. “She was an appropriate setting her whole career, whenever she was needed as a diplomatic platform.”

In 1922, Olympia was decommissioned and mothballed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. She was moved to Penn’s Landing in 1958 to serve as a floating museum. She has since been declared a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

But many efforts to maintain the ship have failed. In 2010, a local campaign to raise the $20 million to tow Olympia to dry dock and restore her hull fell far short of its goal. The Navy gave the Seaport Museum approval to dispose of the ship off the New Jersey coast.

Historians, preservationists, and sailors’ families objected to reefing Olympia, and a search began for a new steward. Serious offers came from South Carolina and California, but the transfer review panel found that the applicant organizations did not have viable solutions for maintaining the ship.

In 2011, the Seaport Museum led by Brady, its new CEO, decided to keep Olympia and commit to her preservation.

In better ship shape

Maintenance of the vessel has been ongoing since then, and Brady said Olympia is in much better shape than she was five years ago.

The biggest problem area is the “wind and water line,” which runs about three feet from the water, where the hull is most deteriorated. Using a cofferdam system, an enclosure that creates a dry environment, restorers are applying a thick coat of ceramic epoxy as an interim measure to stabilize the hull. “We’re going after the worst areas first,” Brady said. “That will stabilize the ship and make moving to a dry dock much safer when the time comes.”

To support this work, the museum has raised $600,000 from government and private giving in the last year, including a National Maritime Heritage Grant from the National Park Service, support from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museums Commission, and gifts from the Herman D. Pollock Family Foundation and Jennifer Pritzker’s Tawani Foundation.

These contributions from well-known donors outside the Philadelphia region encouraged the museum to form the Flagship Olympia Foundation, which will pursue more national support for Olympia.

Bill McLaughlin, of the Swiss-based investment firm UBS and a former board chair of the Seaport Museum, is chair of the new foundation. The advisory board already includes former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, and “we’re looking for other national figures from industry and politics and the maritime fields” to join the board, McLaughlin said.

The foundation also is in the process of hiring a fundraising consultant who can identify “the type of individuals who would give to the Statue of Liberty or the USS Enterprise — things of national value. We’re going to approach them with the help of this consultant for substantial gifts” in what will be a multi-year campaign, McLaughlin said.

Brady said the foundation would be in full operation within six months.

Activating history

As the effort grows to raise funds for the basic repairs to the ship, restoration of other spaces continue in order to increase interest and accessibility to Olympia. After the installation of suitable bathrooms for the public, the early projects included polishing up the officers’ quarters and recreating the brig, the ship’s jail. “Those are the kinds of things people love to see,” Brady laughed.

A current project is the signal bridge on the top deck, where the ship communicated with the rest of the fleet before the advent of radio. Signal flags were a form of coding that involved combinations of flags representing combinations of letters, which the texting generation should easily embrace. “We’ll teach kids to send messages back and forth,” Brady said.

Brady also looks forward to opening up the engine room, which isn’t easily accessed through the tight spaces and ladders. “To stand in Olympia’s engine room is to be in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. It’s this gorgeous piece of machinery,” he said.

An ultimate goal for Brady, who supervised the museum’s boat shop from 1995 to 2011, is to show visitors and students how Olympia actually worked. “The big focus is activating things, making the machinery run, and developing physics and engineering lessons based on the machinery.”

Olympia was one of the first ships to use a refrigeration system, the Allen Dense Air Ice Machine still located on the gun deck, which turned steam to ice. “That was one of Olympia’s pioneering achievements; the diet of the sailor was changed completely as a result of this,” Brady said.

Olympia also has a Fessenden Oscillator, an early sonar system that she used to hunt U-boats during World War I, fitted on the ship’s bottom.

“These are great teaching tools, and how they work is easily explained,” said Brady, who is talking to maritime colleges about opportunities for onboard, hands-on classes.

There are no other art exhibits scheduled after the “Artship” installation, though an artist-in-residence program is planned for the museum and its holdings.

“We’re about art, history, science and community,” Brady said. “History and the science piece are what we’ve been focused on first, and picking up art as the opportunities arise and exploring all the possibilities.”

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