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FDR's Yacht Is Getting Shipshape : Tourism: Restoration funds are running short, but there are efforts to make the Potomac part of a historic park in Oakland. The city hopes that it will lure visitors.

September 03, 1990|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt plucked from obscurity a 165-foot Coast Guard cutter and ordered it refitted with a dining salon, staterooms and a hand-operated elevator to accommodate the wheelchair he used after being crippled by polio.

For the next decade, until his death, the austere, gleaming-white yacht, rechristened the Potomac, served as a "floating White House," where Roosevelt entertained kings, queens and political leaders and spent countless weekends fishing from the teak-covered deck, a haven from the troubles of Depression and war.

These days, the ship is in the final stages of a long, against-the-odds face lift at the Port of Oakland after years of bouncing from one owner to another, including Elvis Presley, before literally sinking into ignominy after being seized by U.S. Customs in a drug bust.

If all goes as planned, Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, an Oakland Democrat, will introduce a bill in Congress later this month to establish the USS Potomac National Historical Park. The Potomac itself would be a floating museum of the Roosevelt era, ferrying schoolchildren on San Francisco Bay and the Delta.

The designation would make the restored ship and a planned visitor center eligible for an estimated $1 million in annual federal funds.

Problem is, the costly restoration effort, always a hand-to-mouth affair, is in some danger of running aground even as workers install the woodwork and light fixtures in the staterooms, salon and fantail.

To date, at least $3.5 million raised from government and private sources has been spent to refurbish the ship, not counting thousands of dollars' worth of donated equipment and building materials. And the furnishings have yet to be bought.

"We're almost out of money," Dan Holdgate, project manager for the rebuilding, said on a recent tour of the ship. "The Potomac probably will be running by mid-September, but we might not have the money to buy life rafts and vests."

Fund-raising efforts continue, and officials expect the restoration to be completed. But they note that a key to the ship's future will be qualifying for government funds.

Given the vessel's tumultuous past, it comes as no surprise to many associated with the restoration that the Potomac still faces rough sailing.

Originally called the Electra, the ship was built by the Manitowoc Ship Building Co. in Manitowoc, Wis., in 1934. Its first duty was to chase rumrunners, who were still around in the early days after Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

At the time, Roosevelt was using the yacht Sequoia, an ornate vessel not particularly to his liking. Aides feared that it would be difficult to evacuate the crippled leader should the wooden vessel catch fire.

Roosevelt, an avid sailor and former assistant secretary of the Navy, picked the Electra for conversion into a presidential yacht at a cost of $60,000.

Among other changes, a hand-powered elevator was installed in the after stack to enable the President to ride to and from the boat deck. A large, leather-covered settee was built into the fantail; photographs of the time show Roosevelt, with his trademark cigarette holder, enjoying cocktails with guests there. Wicker chairs and tables and--when Roosevelt's military advisers deemed necessary--bulletproof glass completed the outdoor furnishings.

Below decks, stainless steel bathtubs were added in the President's and guest quarters. Leather furniture, wood paneling and brass fixtures were installed throughout.

In one interior room containing radio equipment, Roosevelt conducted at least one of his famous "Fireside Chats."

"It looked like a boat that could be used for a number of purposes, but when you used it for a yacht, you weren't ashamed of it," FDR's oldest son, James, recalled in an interview at his Corona del Mar home. Visitors, he said, often were astonished that the ship was quite plain.

Log entries show that it was used for travels from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Key West. Roosevelt often used it for fishing jaunts on the Chesapeake Bay. In 1939, England's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (now the Queen Mum) joined the President and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on a journey down the Potomac River to Williamsburg, Va.

The Potomac was part of a notable ruse in 1941. FDR left Maine aboard the yacht but secretly met a cruiser that carried him to a rendezvous with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill off Newfoundland, where the two leaders signed the Atlantic Charter, creating the wartime alliance. Aboard the Potomac, crew members stood in for the President, fishing from the deck in boat cloak and snap-brim hat. The secret rendezvous went off without a hitch.

After the war, President Harry S. Truman replaced the Potomac with a larger vessel, the Williamsburg. The Potomac was mustered out of the Navy, decommissioned by the Coast Guard and sold to the state of Maryland.

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