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Painstaking restoration of presidential yacht will soon begin in Belfast

Todd French, the owner of French & Webb, a custom boat building company in Belfast, stands by the pilothouse of the USS Sequoia

Posted on August 15, 2022

Those who stroll along the Belfast waterfront likely walk right by a National Historic Landmark without ever knowing it.

That’s because the USS Sequoia, a 1925 motor yacht that served as the so-called Floating White House for eight presidents, is being stored under white plastic in a city-owned parking lot adjacent to the Belfast Harbor Walk. The vessel, which is listed on the National Register, has been there ever since being barged into the harbor in October 2019 for a stem-to-stern restoration.

Little obvious work has been done on the Sequoia, but a lot has happened behind the scenes, according to Todd French of French & Webb, a local custom boat building company. That prep work has included using modern laser technology to make a full, three-dimensional model of the boat, and sourcing rare wood in environmentally sensitive ways.

The USS Sequoia, the so-called “Floating White House,” is a National Historic Landmark. It’s in Belfast for a stem-to-stern restoration, and although not much visible work has happened, Todd French of French & Webb custom boat builders said that a lot has been done behind the scenes. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

“It’s slowly happening, but the needle is moving,” French said this week on a tour of the Sequoia. “As much as it’s a bit of an eyesore on the waterfront right now, it’s here, it’s protected — and it’s going to happen.”

Inside the boat, glimpses of its history are still visible. In the main saloon, there’s the piano on which President Richard Nixon played a melancholy version of “God Bless America” after he decided to resign. A pinhole drilled into a wooden closet is where the CIA placed a hidden camera to record Nixon’s nuclear weapons talks with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev.

“There’s something about this boat that just grabbed me personally,” French said. “You know how you walk into historic buildings sometimes, and you just feel that grandeur and power? I feel that in this space.”

The history of the Sequoia spans much of the 20th century. It was designed by John Trumpy, a Norwegian-born naval architect, for a yacht-loving heiress named Emily Roebling Cadwalader. At 104 feet, the Sequoia, made of long-leaf yellow pine, at the time was one of the largest personal yachts in the world.

“There were a lot of these house-style boats that were used on the Eastern seaboard in protected waters by wealthy people at the time,” French said. “They were like a glorified RV of the day.”

But Cadwalader didn’t keep it for long. She sold it to a Houston oil tycoon, but after he went belly up in the stock market crash of 1929, the boat was for sale again. President Herbert Hoover, who had many friends with similar-style boats, had the secretary of the Navy buy it for the country, French said.

“The way they justified the expense in that day was to use it as a decoy for rum runners during Prohibition,” he said.

The Sequoia, though, had a special attribute that made it appealing to government officials, French said. Its shallow draft allowed it to float all the way up the Potomac River to Washington, D.C.


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