A beloved Depression-era tanker that is used as an arts space celebrated its 75th birthday last week, when those that have loved her from afar finally got a chance to get inside.
The Mary A. Whalen, a 613-ton, 172-foot-long vessel was opened to the public for the first time in nearly three years for a special party on May 21, the same day that it was launched in 1938.
“We’re really thrilled that the ship was able to be accessible,” said Carolina Salguero, the director of PortSide NewYork, a maritime education group that has been headquartered on the tanker since 2007. Salguero is responsible for turning the vessel into an education and cultural center. PortSide sponsored the celebration.
The ship, which spent most of its career delivering fuel to other boats up and down the East Coast, was taken out service in 1993. It’s usually docked at the Red Hook container terminal, but because the terminal is an active shipping port federal security regulations limit the amount of people who can visit it.
For the tanker’s impromptu birthday bash, the ship was able to secure a position at Pier 11 on the Atlantic Basin, before being towed back to the container port.
Dozens of boat lovers, neighbors, former crew members, parrots, and, of course, shirtless male dancers, boarded the vessel to commemorate one of the few remaining symbols of Red Hook’s once-thriving maritime past.
Visitors received birthday cake and were able to roam the historic tanker. It’s big, semi-circular galley is equipped with a cast iron diesel burning stove, patented in 1918, and a wood-paneled freezer and refrigerator.
“There’s a lot of antique stuff,” said Salguero, who bought the ship in 2006 for $16,500. “She’s an old noble boat — there’s something special about her.”
The Whalen is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and considered the only oil tanker cultural space in the world.
The boat has been used as a swaying stage for opera, historic tours, and other cultural activities over the years. However, the ship’s offerings are limited when it’s docked in the container terminal because only five visitors are allowed on the vessel at a time. And, they have to be escorted by Salguero, she said.
Salguero has big plans to make the tanker an accessible educational exhibit. She is currently in negotiations with concrete titan John Quadrozzi Jr. of Gowanus Bay Terminal in Red Hook for a new home for the tanker.
“We would be publicly accessible and we could do everything we intend to do with the boat,” she said, adding that if the tanker made the move to Gowanus Bay Terminal visitors could easily board directly from Columbia Street.
Salguero also said that moving to Quadrozzi’s property would help PortSide draw in school field trips and kick start other educational programming.
“We hope to be there for summer,” she said. “We’re very excited.”