The High Cost of History 

Restoring the C.A. Thayer will run $10 million for starters. Is preservation worth the price?

How much effort and money is too much to spend in pursuit of our fetish for historic preservation? At what stage of decay should a historic relic succumb to its natural fate? And at what point does a renovated object cease to be the original item?

These are all questions suggested by the fate of the historic schooner the C.A. Thayer, which used to be docked at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Located in the nexus of tourist destinations along the San Francisco shoreline, these floating museum pieces are popular attractions. If the Thayer is particularly beloved, it is because fifty thousand schoolkids have slept under its deck as part of an educational enrichment program during the past two decades. These days, though, nobody is sleeping aboard the Thayer. The schooner is disassembled in an old seaplane hangar on Alameda's abandoned naval base and rings with the noise of power tools.

Project supporters are still smarting following an article in the San Francisco Chronicle implying that the reconstruction is "awash in red ink" -- over budget and in jeopardy of never being finished. This is not the kind of talk that endears a person to US Park Service project manager Steve Canright or project contractor Jim Hayes of Bay Ship and Yacht. "The conclusion was taken out of context," Hayes says. "The Park Service estimated a cost in order to accept bids from contractors, but on a job like this you don't really know what you're getting into until you start taking things apart."

The project's reconstruction budget began at $9.3 million, but that turned out to be low. Besides, Hayes says, that was just to keep the badly-rotted ship from sinking at its dock -- an additional chunk of change will be needed to add a missing mast and fully restore the vessel to sailing condition. "There was more internal rot than we estimated, but that wasn't completely unexpected," he argues. "We explained all this, but the reporter apparently only heard it as 'the ship is floating on a sea of red ink.'"

More troubling, perhaps, than any confusion over the expected budget are the niggling doubts as to whether the ultimate cost will exceed the ship's historical value. In a time of strained government budgets, might it not make more sense to invest the money in the future, instead of another example of a quaint, obsolete technology from the past? Unlike the Mayflower, Merrimack, or even Alameda's own Hornet, no particularly notable historic event ever happened on board the Thayer. It was just one of a multitude of humble working schooners that hauled lumber and fishing supplies up and down the Pacific coast. Is the Thayer worth all this trouble, considering that it isn't particularly distinguished or famous?

While there is little to distinguish the Thayer from other work ships of its class, the fact that it is one of the few survivors makes it a prime specimen of a certain period in California. "It's one of the last two of five hundred to seven hundred wooden vessels built to carry West Coast lumber," Canright says. "It's a magnificent bit of technology."

Danish emigrant Hans Bendixson built the ship in 1895 on the shore of Humboldt Bay. Bendixson designed it for the E.W. Wood Lumber Company, giving it an extra-wide hull for stability without cargo or ballast and a shallow draft to avoid hanging up on sandbars.

"Shipbuilding was a craft performed on a beach by highly skilled blue-collar workers," Hayes says. "They were commissioned for certain specifications, but the details of construction were left up to them. A contract for one of the Thayer's sister ships was four pages long, with specs like 'Fasten beams together in a good workmanlike manner' -- not like today, with hundreds of pages specifying each detail."

The new ship got its name from a partner in the lumber company, Clarence A. Thayer. Between 1895 and 1912 -- including the years of rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake -- the Thayer traveled repeatedly between the lumber mill and the ever-growing city of San Francisco, with occasional deliveries to Mexico, Hawaii, and Fiji. Propelled solely by wind, the 219-foot ship could carry 575,000 board feet of lumber (the equivalent of nearly 72,000 twelve-foot two-by-fours). Its crew of eight sailed the ship standing on lumber stacked twelve feet high on deck, making footing treacherous in rolling seas and storms. When the crew arrived in port, they served double-duty as the ship's longshoremen, unloading about 80,000 board feet a day.

In 1912, the Wood Company sold the Thayer to a commercial fish company for transporting supplies from San Francisco to Alaska and venturing into the icy Bering Straits with a crew of thirty cod fishermen and fish cleaners. They continued chasing cod until 1950 when the Thayer, the last commercial wind-powered vessel still working the West Coast, retired.

The San Francisco State Historic Park bought the derelict ship in 1957, performed a partial restoration, and opened it to the public on the Hyde Street Pier in 1963. In 1993, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed it as one of America's eleven most endangered historical places, noting that "the C.A. Thayer's massive timbers are badly rotted and the strength and watertight integrity of her hull are threatened by shipworms. Without thorough reconstruction, the ship will continue to weaken until she eventually sinks."

Bay Ship has assembled a team of wooden-boat workers from around the country. For these specialists, the renovation is a chance of a lifetime: The two-year project gives them the opportunity to exercise their esoteric skills on a 19th-century schooner. Donovan Crosby, for example, closed his boat works in the Pacific Northwest to work on the Thayer, which he describes as "bigger than all the boats I've ever worked on put together." Others have come from up and down both seacoasts and from as far as New Zealand.

"We're preserving the vessel as a whole machine; the pieces will again interact in the way they were designed to interact," Canright says. "In a hundred years, if somebody opens this up again, they can be confident that 'Yeah, that is how it was built.'"

Still, the vessel's rot is so bad that workers will have to replace 80 percent of the original wood. In the cavernous hangar, Canright points out dark pieces of the original wood that remain. But those boards are far outnumbered by new, light-colored ones. At what point does a rebuilt ship stop being the original one and start being a replica?

"That's a legitimate question," Canright admits. "We stand by the Admiralty Law that states 'the Rose rebuilt is the Rose still.' In legal terms, she's the same vessel. If we had decided to reproduce her pieces and make a replica from them, it would be a lot easier and cheaper -- but it wouldn't be the same ship. In moral terms, we figure she's the same vessel since we're replacing parts bit by bit, using the original technology, and fixing her as they would've done back then. There won't be any glue, there won't be any laminates, and there won't be any threaded fasteners. Instead, we're even having identical fasteners forged to the original specifications."

"It's actually rare that an old ship gets saved," Canright adds. "We have an object lesson in the steam schooner Wapama, another one of our vessels. It's been hauled out of the water since 1979 and it's been sitting on a barge. We've pretty much concluded that it's gone, that there's no practical way to rebuild that."

But what about the cost? Couldn't the Park Service defray some of the cost by selling small pieces of the replaced wood? Wright sighs. "The Alcatraz association once tried raising money by selling off little chunks of concrete that had been replaced," he says. "There was a huge public outcry about 'selling off history.' We're not going to repeat that mistake." Instead, the old wood and nails go into the Dumpster.

Both men make a case for why the renovation is well worth the cost. "It's teaching us a lot now, and it will provide a wealth of information to historians in the future," Canfield says.

"Think of this: Following the earthquake, San Francisco was rebuilt with this vessel," Hayes says. "After we're done, it is easily going to be here for another hundred years. If you consider the money amortized over that time, we're talking about less than $10,000 a year. Considering what we're saving, that's not much at all. You can compare it to what we're spending in Iraq ... but I don't want to go there."

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