“Old Ironsides” is not the only USS Constitution to undergo restoration. While the 218-year-old warship is currently in dry dock in the Charlestown Navy Yard for a two-plus year rebuilding, a 140-year-old scale model of the famed vessel is also undergoing a restoration of its own.
As we have previously discussed on this blog, USS Constitution is probably in the top five of all-time favorite ship models to build. The earliest known model is the one built in 1812 by the crew of Constitution for their captain, Isaac Hull. In the late 19th century, another model, known to us today as the “Loring” model, was built for American Civil War Union General Charles Greely Loring. It is this model that is currently undergoing its own restoration during the Ship Model Show at the USS Constitution Museum.
According to letters written in 1903 by Mrs. Mary H. Loring, General Loring’s wife, to associates of the Old South Meeting House, the model was built circa 1875. As she noted in her April 13, 1903, letter to George A. Goddard, Secretary of the Old South Association, “I have in my possession a model of the “Constitution” – which was built and rigged by one of her crew as a faithful copy, of the old Man o’ War….This model has belonged for many years to the late General Charles Greely Loring.” Mrs. Loring offered to lend the model for display to the Old South Meeting House, which, by the early 20th century, had become a museum, of sorts, with many “relics” of Boston and Massachusetts history.
The model was welcomed by the Old South Association, which ran the Old South Meeting House, and was put on display by the summer of 1903. The model was exhibited without a protective case and well within reach of visitors, both old and young. In early September, 1913, Mrs. Loring’s son Charles G. Loring, complained: “I have noticed that the model of the Constitution…is on a low stand without any protection from souvenir hunters or children, and that some of the details, such as boats and rigging, are missing.” Richard Hale, Treasurer of Old South wrote back: “I am sorry that you have found it in bad condition. We have to choose between convenient exhibition accompanied by small pilfering and somewhat expensive protection by glass or otherwise…Of course in the case of a model lent to us we shall do what the owner requests.”
By November, Mr. Hale assured Charles Loring that “We have had [the model] completely repaired and missing parts replaced.” However, Mr. Hale stated that a glass case was too expensive for the Old South’s budget and also created an unwanted barrier between the model and the viewer. He offered this suggestion: “[Old South] would be quite willing to take the responsibility of keeping [the model] inspected at regular intervals and having any small pilfering replaced.” Mr. Loring agreed that a glass case was “hardly necessary,” but did request that the model be displayed on a table such that small children would not be able to “pilfer” pieces from it.
All appears to have been well with the model until the last letter in the files between Mr. Hale and Mr. Loring. Dated April 3, 1914, Mr. Hale reported: “At the Old South Meeting House the other day a child knocked down the model of the Constitution. We have had it repaired and I cannot see any permanent damage. We have had the whole thing carefully fastened down to the floor and fastened together with irons so that neither the model nor the tables can be moved.”1
By the late 1960s, the model of Constitution was displayed high above the floor of the Old South Meeting House, as can be seen in one of the very few photographs to capture it on exhibition. The decades of constant display, lack of protective case, and early damage to the model were taking their toll on its condition.
The Old South Meeting House was part of Boston’s Freedom Trail by 1978 and the administration decided to reclaim the building’s history and interpret it as a former place of worship and an important site of public meetings leading up to the American Revolution. Many of the “relics” that had been exhibited at Old South were dispersed and the long-term loan of the Lorings’ Constitution model was transferred to the newly-founded USS Constitution Museum in the Charlestown Navy Yard.
Because so many details on the model had either disintegrated due to the inherent vice of the modeler’s materials or damage from decades of unprotected display at the Old South Meeting House, the curatorial staff of the USS Constitution Museum even questioned whether or not the model truly represented “Old Ironsides” in a realistic way. Careful examination in the late 1990s, revealed enough similarities between the model and photographs of Constitution in the 1870s and 1880s to allay any residual doubts and confirm, indeed, that the model did represent, fairly accurately, the ship in the twilight of her long U.S. Navy career.
The model’s condition had deteriorated very badly and the USS Constitution Museum staff asked the Loring family for permission to restore the model. Thirty-four years after the model’s arrival at the Museum, and after the Loring family converted the long-term loan into an unrestricted donation, the restoration of the “Loring” model is finally taking place.
Rob Napier, professional ship model builder and restorer, has taken on the task of re-building the Loring model of Constitution. Rob, a U.S. Navy veteran, has worked with private and public model collections including the Forbes Collection, the Kennedy Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the New York Yacht Club, and the Art Gallery of Ontario. The Loring model presents some interesting challenges for Rob. As he slowly takes the model apart, we are all learning what the model will reveal about its maker or makers and what it tells us about the late 19th century USS Constitution.
So, what needs to be done?
The rigging shattered over time and much of the “deck furniture” (guns, equipment, etc.) had disappeared. Obviously, all of this material must be repaired and/or replaced, but first the accumulated dirt, dust, and grime had to be removed.
In 2013, Rob enlisted the aid of Bruce Bent, a longtime member of the USS Constitution Model Shipwright Guild of New England, to help clean the model using the enzyme technique, colloquially known as “spit cleaning.” To perform the enzyme technique, conservators use human saliva and cotton swaps to gently remove dust and grime from a surface. The saliva is pH neutral and contains enzymes that safely clean away dirt without damaging the object being cleaned.
Rob and his team, including Guild members Bruce Bent, Ray Crean, and Larry Ward, spent several weeks wiping away dirt that had accumulated over many decades. Loose debris and equipment were removed from the spar deck, including yards that had fallen from aloft, the spar deck battery, boats, hatch covers, and the broken jibboom and flying jibboom. Everything removed was labeled and cataloged.
The four large parcels of thin pine board that make up the spar deck were scored to look like individual deck planks. These pieces were lifted off to reveal the gun deck below and over 140 years of dirt, trash, mud-daubing wasps’ nests, and bits of model that had come loose. Upon removing the spar deck, Rob and Bruce noticed that the gun deck was made up of individual laid planks just like on the real ship.
The USS Constitution Museum provided Rob with a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter to gently remove debris and loose model parts without damaging the model or the materials vacuumed.
Among the debris vacuumed out of the model were a tiny wooden oar, a gun tube, loose gun port doors, stove smokestacks, and parts of rigging.
Despite the Snowpocalypse of 2015, Rob’s restoration work on the Loring model continued at the USS Constitution Museum. More loose parts were removed from the ship and carefully cataloged.
Rob also photographed the spar and gun decks and stitched the images together to create full-scale panoramic views of the model’s decks, called memory boards. The memory board is an analog catalog system developed by Rob to eliminate the need for an alpha-numeric catalog system. Rob uses these memory boards to keep track of individual pieces as they are removed from the model.
Early in December 2015, while removing the gun deck planking from the Loring model, Rob discovered the remnants of Constitution‘s tiller and tiller quadrant on the berth deck (see the red arrow in the photo below). Not only was the tiller still in place, but parts of the tiller ropes and blocks were left behind, indicating that the tiller may have been a working feature on the model. On the actual ship, the double wheel on the spar deck is connected to the tiller via the tiller ropes. When the double wheel is turned the tiller ropes swing the tiller to port or starboard, thereby turning the rudder and thus the ship. Ironically, there is no wheel on the Loring model today. It was likely lost more than half a century ago and may be replaced.
Like the actual USS Constitution undergoing a multi-year restoration, work on the Loring model will also take several years. Rob will continue his restoration work on the model this season through February 2016. Stop by the USS Constitution Museum on Wednesdays from 10am to 2pm to see him in action. Click here to view Part II.
-M. M. Desy and K. Monea. Special thanks to Rob Napier for contributing to this article.
 Copies of the Loring/Old South Meeting House correspondence is on file in the model’s accession folder (Accession #2208) at the USS Constitution Museum.
USS Constitution Museum