In Press: Proceedings article explaining the Olympia (C-6) debacle

by Craig Hooper on July 16, 2010

In America’s constellation of troubled maritime memorials, none are more threatened than the Protected Cruiser Olympia (C-6). This humble ship is, in itself, an American treasure of unmatched historical, technical and symbolic value (In response to Robert Farley’s twitter yesterday, I’d trade an Iowa Class Battleship for the Olympia–in a heartbeat!).

Everybody is eager to save the Olympia. But few are wondering…just how did such a precious artifact fall onto such hard times? Why is it in trouble? Well, I offer, in the July 2010 issue of Proceedings, one answer:

What has been steadily sinking the ship? Not disinterest. Instead, more modern American vices-greed, corruption, and civic disengagement-may have overpowered this monument to the strong, optimistic America of old.

As the Olympia sat deprived of basic maintenance, the Independence Seaport Museum’s chief, John S. Carter, enjoyed perks far above compensation provided at peer institutions. In 2004, his salary exceeded $350,000, and he lived rent-free in a $1.7 million executive mansion bought, maintained, remodeled, and even furnished with museum funds, according to news reports.

The criminal complaint against Carter claimed that by 2006, the museum had been billed more than $335,000 for work on the director’s Massachusetts home. While Carter charged the museum over $280,000 for personal purchases of jewelry, home electronics, designer clothing, and rare artwork, almost $200,000 dollars in maritime artifacts-including a rare print of Dewey-went missing.

Rather than support the Olympia, Carter defrauded the museum of more than $900,000 dollars in a scheme to restore and resell-for personal gain-several antique pleasure boats.

The museum faltered. Between 1999 and 2005, its endowment went from $48 million to a mere $7.7 million. Admission receipts tumbled by half. And all this time, the final arbiters of fiscal management, the museum board, did nothing.

Outside the museum, interested stakeholders did little more. In 2002, after the U.S. Naval Institute’s own Naval History magazine published a devastating article detailing the Olympia’s dire condition, Carter flatly rejected the story in a letter, claiming the account was “somewhat dated and generally uninformed.” This strange rebuttal evoked little response, even though the Olympia‘s decay, well documented by photographs in the magazine, was undeniable.

Carter’s looting of America’s historic treasure continued unabated. Apparently gambling on a federal bailout, the museum director carried on until his house of cards began crumbling in 2005.

In 2007, Carter was sentenced to a 15-year prison term for defrauding the museum of more than $1.5 million over his 17-year tenure.

Museum management was so dysfunctional, I suspect the millions that were supposedly “spent” on the ship were frittered away…or not used on the Olympia in the first place. But that’s just my sense of how things went under the leadership of John S. Carter.

Let me be bunt. The Olympia’s prospects are grim. The slow demise of the Olympia was a very civic failure, and, after this, summoning community enthusiasm to save the vessel will be very, very hard. Also, from the Federal perspective, it is hard to summon the enthusiasm to support a community organization that used a very significant historical artifact as a fiscal hostage (with nary a peep from anybody within the organization).

That’s why you should, right now, head over here to support the new guys. I’ll have more on them later.

To sum up, the Olympia is a microcosm of what is ailing America–greed, corruption and civic disengagement. The prospect that these new American vices might “sink” the proud America of old should bring a tear to even the least sentimental reader present. (And I hate to say it, but the Olympia isn’t the only maritime monument suffering from imperial management troubles….)

I sure wish somebody in the White House would recognize this and act to help save the vessel. It’d be a perfect symbolic moment–a physical “rolling back” America’s civic malaise (in the nick of time, no less!) and ushering in a new era of responsible civic behavior. It’d be met with bipartisan support–if not complete and unfeigned enthusiasm.

Let me put it this way–both FDR and Ronald Reagan would have jumped at the chance to support this project. They’d have recognized the Olympia as a grand opportunity to commit the bully pulpit–and a few buck–for the betterment of the nation. Somebody tell the President to make this happen.

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