The S.S. Catalina, which will host a preview for government officials and the press in its new role as a floating entertainment center in Ensenada today, has unwittingly sailed into uncharted waters in terms of its status as a state and federally certified historic ship.
But just as the Great White Steamer's fortunes have taken a turn for the better in the last few months, the vessel is likely to navigate into precedent-setting status as the first maritime historic site permitted by regulatory agencies to relocate outside the United States.
The Catalina's Mexican-American operating company plans to hold an official ribbon-cutting ceremony for Mexican government officials and American news media today, said ship spokesman Alejandro Marcin Salazar.
For the Fourth of July weekend, said Marcin, who directs the ship's affairs in Mexico, the Catalina will open to the public in its new incarnation as a floating restaurant, bar, disco and boutique shopping center. The Great White Steamer complex, a jetty and mooring in the central Ensenada harbor area, includes parking and other shore facilities.
But back in the United States, the Catalina, which hauled 25 million people between San Pedro and Avalon during 50 years in service starting in 1924, continued this week to make its own peculiar form of maritime history.
In Sacramento, officials of the state Historical Resources Commission--who learned of the Catalina's latest incarnation last month through a story in The Times--prepared a staff report recommending that the Catalina retain its status as a California historic site, granted in 1976, even though it is no longer here.
The recommendation, which must be adopted in August by the nine-member commission, would set a precedent because no state-designated historic site has ever left California. But that precedent will not have widespread effect because the Catalina appears to be the only mobile, historic site, said Sandy Elder, the commission's assistant executive secretary.
Somewhat more perplexing, however, is the Catalina's status as a registered site on the National Register of Historic Places, a U.S. government program administered by the Department of the Interior. A spokesman said the agency had never been officially notified that the Catalina had left the country. It was towed to Mexico in 1985 in the midst of a legal dispute between its owners, Hymie and Ruthe Singer of Beverly Hills, and an Orange County real estate agent who had leased it from them.
Tom Wilson, an Interior Department spokesman in Washington, said in view of the Catalina's relocation out of the country, its historic site designation is a situation with "absolutely zero precedent."
"This is the first time," he said, "that anything on the National Register has simply sailed away."
Review of Ship's Status
Wilson said the National Park Service, which administers the historic site register, had been instructed to begin a review of the Catalina's status, but Park Service officials said they would be significantly influenced by whatever action California officials take.
The ship received its federal designation the same year it was certified by state officials. By rules of federal and state historic site programs, designated sites can lose their status if they are demolished or changed drastically. Elder said that--based on photographs published by The Times--the Catalina did not seem to have been radically altered.
The federal government's historic preservation program includes more than 90 ships and other maritime sites. Neither the state nor the federal designation legally binds the owner of any historic entity to preserve it.
The federal government also recognizes officially sanctioned "historic landmarks," which are generally thought to be of greater significance than historic sites. The Catalina does not carry landmark status.
For information on the ship's operating hours, call (706) 678-3222.