The retired presidential yacht USS Williamsburg will return to Washington in the next few weeks to be restored as a floating restaurant on the Georgetown waterfront.
Two restaurant owners, Richard J. McCooey and Stuart J. Long, and the president of Washington Boat Lines, Willem Polak, have received a $225,000 loan from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to buy and restore the 50-year-old yacht, now in poor condition at a Philadelphia dock.
The project has drawn opposition from some local citizens' groups but apparently has received all the necessary permits to proceed.
In its heyday, the Williamsburg was used extensively by Harry Truman and briefly by Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin.
President Eisenhower had the 243-foot ocean-going vessel decommissioned and sold in 1953 as a "needless luxury." It was turned into a floating restaurant in New Jersey. Since 1977, the yacht has served as home to a private Philadelphia club.
The new owners, who bought the boat last Thursday, expect to spend more than $1 million to transform it into two 150-seat restaurants and private dining quarters.
The restoration is expected to take at least a year and will be done while the boat is at the Georgetown waterfront.
Truman's poker table and numerous photos from the Truman Library come with the Williamsburg. Its owners also hope to acquire some presidential china used on it. They said this week that a citizens' advisory group is being formed that will include Margaret Truman Daniel, the late president's daughter, to aid in the boat's restoration.
When weather permits, the Williamsburg will be towed from Philadelphia to the Maine Avenue docks of Washington Boat Lines.
From there, the new owners must come up with a plan to get the yacht under the five 14th Street bridges and Memorial Bridge. This may involve removing some of the boat's superstructure and partially filling the vessel with water so that it will be low enough to get under the bridges at low tide. (Two of the bridges do not open and the others have not been opened since the 1960s.) Then it will be towed to the Georgetown waterfront for restoration.
The new owners also plan to build a 100-foot rock jetty off the waterfront, with a walkway and perhaps a gazebo on the end, as a public fishing pier. The jetty will protect the yacht from Potomac River ice floes, which have at times endangered Key Bridge.
While the boat project has received the blessing -- and the loan of the National Trust, unanimous approval of the Fine Arts Commission and a Corps of Engineers permit, it has been opposed by several citizens' groups as an inappropriate commercial venture on what is proposed to be public park land.
Both Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3-A and the Georgetown Citizens Association also have objected that there is insufficient parking for the floating restaurant. And Potomac River rowing clubs have objected to the planned rock jetty as a hazard to the many racing crews that scull on the river. There are no jetties in the river now.
There also is a dispute over whether the National Park Service ever issued a permit for the boat and jetty or whether a separate Park Service permit even is required.
The Park Service, which controls the Potomac riverbed in the District, claims that Polak has a permit for his tour boat, The Spirit of '76, to dock at both the Georgetown waterfront and near the Lincoln Memorial, but has no permit for the Williamsburg or the stone jetty to protect it.
Records show the Park Service has generally supported the boat project, but spokesman George Berklacy said this week "we have serious reservations about the impact" of the jetty, and the parking and other problems that the boat will bring to the waterfront.
While the ANC and the citizens association opposed the liquor license for the Williamsburg, the groups have not been unanimous in their opposition to the boat and jetty and have not made a major issue of it.
"There's been little publicity on this, and I'm afraid it kind of slipped by," citizens association vice president Thomas Parrott said this week. I don't even know if the [U.s.] Army Corps of Engineers held a hearing" on the rock jetty, Parrott said. The corps did, at the request of one rowing group, and approved the jetty. The jetty, while it would be about 100 feet long, would extend out at an angle into the Potomac for only about 70 feet.
Ray Kukulski, chairman of the local ANC, said this week, "Our main objection has been the lack of parking. The city parking lot [now on the waterfront] will be closed when the land is transferred to the Park Service, and then where will cars park for such a huge restaurant?"
The boat's owners have a 20-year lease from the District to dock the yacht at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue and to use an 18-by-500-foot area along the waterfront for access and as a parking lot. They will pay $100,000 a year to the city for the lease. If the city transfers its waterfront land to the Park Service for a federal park, the 18-by-500 foot area would not be included, Polak said.
McCooey, one owner, estimated that the lot can hold 50 to 70 cars but said the city parking lot at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue will be the main parking area for the floating restaurant.
It is not clear, however, where Williamsburg customers would park if the city closes that lot and gives it to the Park Service for park land. Polak said he is now negotiating with the Park Service, offering to move the Williamsburg and the jetty about 200 yards upriver to the foot of Key Bridge if the Park Service would provide almost an acre of land to park about 200 cars. This would remove the Williamsburg from the narrow central section of the waterfront and future park.
However, Park Service regional director, Manus J. Fish, said this week he does not favor a parking lot on any park land on the Georgetown waterfront. h
The USS Williamsburg was constructed in Bath, Maine, in 1930 as the yacht Aras, for a New England businessman. It was commandeered by the Navy as a gunboat at the start of World War II, cruising between the United States, Iceland and Cuba and joining in one fight with German U-Boats.
The gunboat became the presidential yacht in 1945 after Truman rejected the Navy's first offering, the palatial yacht of Vincent Astor. President Roosevelt's yacht, the USS Potomac, had been condemned by the Navy as unseaworthy during the war and restricted to short river and bay cruises.
The Williamsburg is one of dozens of yachts the Navy has provided U.S. presidents for more than 100 years. Most were sold at public auction when new presidents took office and declared the yachts of their predecessors to be extravagant.
President Carter sold the 104-foot Sequoia in 1977 as an "unjustified and unnecessary expense," just as President Nixon, as an "economy measure," sold the two yachts used by Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson before switching to the Sequoia.
The Sequoia, used occasionally by eight presidents since Herbert Hoover, was bought as a tourist attraction for Myrtle Beach, S.C. One of the Eisenhower yachts, the 92-foot Barbara Anne, later renamed Honey Fitz and then Patricia by Kennedy and Nixon became a Greenwich, Conn., charter boat, rechristened The President.
Truman used the Williamsburg on hundreds of Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay jaunts and trips to Florida, Cuba, Bermuda and Puerto Rico, as well as for post-war meetings with French and Mexican leaders and with Churchill, Anthony Eden, Clement Atlee and Stalin.