Historic Olympia on the block

Posted: March 07, 2011

The Olympia - the last surviving vessel of the Spanish-American War and an icon of the Philadelphia waterfront for more than 50 years - is looking for a new caretaker and will be hosting candidates at a summit to be held March 30 to April 1.

Forty people, representing dozens of organizations, including historic-preservationists and prospective stewards from across the country, plan to attend the event, said officials at the Independence Seaport Museum, the ship's current caretaker.

Some have expressed an interest in taking over the ship but must be qualified as nonprofits, financially able to pay for the $2 to $5 million of work to immediately stabilize the deteriorating warship.

Another $10 to $20 million will be required for drydock and restoration.

The summit "is a sharing process to preserve history," said Capt. John J. Gazzola, president and chief executive officer of the Independence Seaport Museum, in an interview Monday. "We wouldn't need a summit if there weren't interested parties.

"We would like to see the successful transfer of stewardship from the museum to another responsible organization."

New benefactors will be required to submit a letter of intent and executive summary application by Sept. 1, followed by business/financial and environmental plans by April 1, 2012. A mooring, tow, maintenance and curatorial plan must be submitted by Nov. 1, 2012.

The museum is expecting letters of intent but will be even more interested in the submission of viable financial plans next year.

"If no one steps up, we may have to look at other options," said Jesse Lebovics, manager of the Olympia and submarine Becuna for the museum. "We may have to go down a destructive path."

Lebovics said that could involve the scrapping or reefing of the Olympia. But he and other museum officials hope it never comes to that.

"No one wants to see the Olympia in this crisis again," Lebovics said. "This is the greatest progress we've made to date. We now have a methodology to solve the Olympia problem."

One of the organizations that would like to take over the Olympia is the Friends of the Cruiser Olympia, which recently approved $10,000 for some emergency hull repairs and would consider spending another $100,000 in work to prepare the ship for its transfer to drydock.

Bruce Harris, executive director of the Friends, which has been trying to raise $5 million for the restoration, said he would meet Tuesday "with interested parties" in Washington, D.C. to discuss formation of a coalition to apply for the transfer of stewardship.

"Our group wants to keep her in Philly and turn her into an independent museum after drydocking and refitting," said Harris. "She would be part of the renaissance of the Philadelphia waterfront. We think Olympia is in a great spot. "

The Olympia is best known for its role at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War, when Navy Commodore George Dewey stood on the Bridge and uttered the famous words, "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley."

The ship spent World War I in the Atlantic ocean and later brought home the remains of the Unknown Soldier from France in 1921.

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

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