President Truman regularly played poker on the USS Williamsburg, the one-time gunboat he used as his yacht. He sailed on the 243-foot ship scores of times, using it for jaunts to Florida, Cuba, Bermuda and Puerto Rico, as well as for postwar meetings with Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee and V.M. Molotov.
The 55-year-old ship now sits deteriorating in the Potomac River alongside the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant. But by early 1986, Stuart Davidson and John Laytham, the owners of Clyde's restaurant in Georgetown, think the ship can be refurbished, towed to the Georgetown waterfront 50 yards east of Key Bridge and opened as a restaurant.
The idea is not a new one, but it does have the support of Mayor Marion Barry, who calls it part of his plan for "balanced development" of the Georgetown waterfront.
The Williamsburg would anchor at the western end of a revitalized shoreline that also will include a public park and walkways, the Washington Harbour condominium complex now under construction, and a luxury hotel and new office building near the mouth of Rock Creek.
The ship's current owners, restaurateurs Richard J. McCooey and Stuart J. Long and cruise boat entrepreneur Willem Polak, have decided they cannot secure the financing to turn the ship into a restaurant and instead are selling it soon to Clyde's for $250,000, according to McCooey and Laytham.
Laytham said Clyde's plans to spend $7.5 million to $8 million to restore the ship to its grandeur of 35 years ago and equip it as a restaurant for at least 200 customers. It will be docked parallel to the Potomac River shoreline, he said, likely with a jetty built upstream of it to protect it from springtime ice floes.
In addition, city officials granted McCooey's group the right to park as many as 200 cars on the adjoining waterfront, one of several permits connected with the project that is being sold to Clyde's. However, Barry, in announcing his plans on Wednesday for development of the Georgetown waterfront, said the city plans to "try to cut that down."
Juan Cameron, president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, immediately vowed to try to block the restaurant's opening, calling it "very crass" to create a national park on the waterfront after 20 years of debate "and then have some private corporation use part of it as a parking lot. I can't tell you how outraged we are. It's just one of those giveaways."
The National Park Service, while not objecting to using the Williamsburg as a restaurant on the waterfront, also has opposed the parking lot, which would be located between the Whitehurst Freeway and the Potomac River.
But Manus J. (Jack) Fish, the Park Service's regional director here, said the agency will "have to accept the land with the leases" for the parking when the District government turns over nine waterfront acres it owns for use as a park.
Before any restaurant opens, Laytham said, the ship will have to undergo a complicated restoration.
"The boat is a disaster at the moment," he said. "We're starting from scratch."
First, he said, the ship is to be towed to Norfolk, where its hull will be treated "to make it last for 20 or 30 years." In addition, he said, old equipment must be removed, as well as asbestos insulation from around the ship's pipes, a substance now deemed cancer-causing.
While the ship is in Norfolk, the superstructure, that is, everything above the deck, will be detached. The ship now is too tall to sail underneath the relatively low-slung Potomac River bridges.
Laytham said the ship's superstructure would be towed on a barge to the Georgetown waterfront and then reattached to the deck. "We're convinced we can do it," Laytham said. He said that Clyde's, unlike the McCooey group, has enough money to finish the project. "We've built a number of restaurants and I know what they cost," Laytham said.
He said the restaurant would specialize in seafood dishes and display a variety of Truman memorabilia, including the president's poker table.