Act II for steamship Lilac

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The deck of a 1933 steamship is not a conventional place to perform a play, but if you believe William Shakespeare, all the world’s a stage.

In the efforts to raise funds for the restoration of Lilac, a 173-foot steamship that served as a lighthouse tender for the U.S. Lighthouse Service from 1933 to 1939, the Lilac Preservation Project has opened up the buoy deck as a venue for cultural and artistic events.

Actor Michael Graves worked the action on Pier 40 into his performance as Mark Twain aboard the historic steamship Lilac.

“We are in the preservation stage to keep her from deteriorating further,” says executive director Charlie Ritchie. “We’re trying to refurbish the state rooms, wheelhouse, captain’s rooms and, of course, eventually get her engines running again.”

Lilac is docked at Pier 40 on the Hudson River in the South Village of New York City.

“For the most part she is about 75 to 80 percent intact,” says Ritchie. “She has one of the last intact steam engines left.”

Though her engines are not functional at this point, Ritchie is hopeful she will be on the water again.

Restoring a historic steamship is a big job, but fortunately in the case of Lilac, there are plenty of inner-city high school kids willing to lend a hand.

Ritchie has run the Maritime Adventure Program since the beginning of 2007, an after-school internship for high school students ages 14 and up that helps to restore the Lilac. Students also participate in the Summer Youth Work Program where students are paid minimum wage for doing restoration work on the Lilac. The program is organized through the New York Department of Youth and Community Development.

The 1933 steamship Lilac has been restored primarily by inner-city high school students and now serves as a venue for performances and photo shoots.

“When I tell the kids that they are responsible for 80 percent of the restoration work since 2007, they can’t believe it,” says Ritchie. “But they get so much more done than just a handful of adults, most of whom don’t have a lot of time to devote.”

The non-profit Tug Pegasus Preservation Project in New York City began negotiations to purchase the vessel in 2002 and she was dry-docked at a shipyard in Norfolk, Va., to have her hull inspected. Upon a favorable review, she was purchased Feb. 25, 2003, and docked where she resides now at Pier 40. (See sidebar for more about Lilac’s history.)

“For the first three or four years no one really did anything with her,” says Ritchie. “I was involved doing events with the kids, doing a Halloween haunted ship for instance, off and on for about four years before I became executive director in 2007.”

Ritchie, who has had a longtime interest in canoeing and rowing boats, is also something of a thespian. He attended acting school for three years and thought one way of raising funds for the boat was to use it as a venue for plays.

“The buoy deck can accommodate 60 or 70 people and you can fit even more on the upper deck,” says Ritchie.

The most recent show to walk the deck was New York director Adam Klasfeld’s production “The Report of My Death,” a one-man show about Mark Twain’s life that had its final performance Aug. 22.

“I found an ad … on Craigslist, offering the ship to art venues,” says Klasfeld, who is also the playwright. “Since much of the play recounts Mark Twain’s world tour [in 1895] by steamboat, there couldn’t have been a more perfect setting.”

Actor Michael Graves, who portrayed Twain, says it was a challenge for him each night of the performance to somehow incorporate the outside noises and events into the script to keep the audience involved.

For instance, one time during the play a party boat floated by blaring techno music. Graves (as Twain) casually wandered to the side of the deck and shouted, “And don’t come back!” much to the delight of the audience.

Another theatre company called The Woodshed Collective based in Brooklyn presented “The Confidence Man,” a play based on the novel of the same title by Herman Melville about con men on a steamship, throughout the month of September.

“It’s a much larger production than the Mark Twain play,” says Ritchie. “It helps because it gets new people on the ship and aware of her existence and importance.”

Ritchie says in October a group from Men’s Vogue China used the Lilac for a photo shoot and hopes more art venues will find her a fun and unique place to hold their events. Meanwhile, Ritchie and the group’s historian Norman Brouwer are applying for her to gain status as a National Historic Landmark, which would make her more eligible for federal grant money. They hope to have the status by spring.

“We don’t know how she’ll run, but there’s also the possibility of her being used as a marine research vessel once her engines are running,” says Ritchie.

For information, visit www.lilacpreservationproject.org.

- New York's seldom-told stories

- Manhattan at work

- A steamship's history

- New York Harbor Voices

 This article originally appeared in the Connecticut & New York Home Waters Section of the January 2010 issue.