Lyceum exhibit features WWI sub-chaser model

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Bernard Kempinski's model of SC201, a World War I submarine chaser, is on view at the Lyceum through 2019 (Courtesy Photo)

By Evan Berkowitz | eberkowitz@alextimes.com 

Down at Jones Point Park, just north of the Capital Beltway overpass, there’s a concrete-bordered silhouette in the grass — long and narrow, tapered at both ends.

“You really wouldn’t know what it is,” said Bernard Kempinski, the Alexandria resident behind a model ship that stars in the Lyceum’s new exhibit on World War I. “But it’s the outline of the steel cargo ships that they built.”

It’s part of the local shipbuilding heritage Alexandrians might be most familiar
with — Kempinski included.

So when Lyceum Director Jim Mackay approached him about building a model for the exhibit in the James Coldsmith Gallery, Kempinski had a large
ship from Jones Point in mind. But the chronicle of Jones Point is not particularly heroic.

“Those boats weren’t ready ‘til after World War I. The contractors were really screwed up; they got sued [and] the thing went bankrupt,” Kempinski said. “That’s not such a good story.”

Lyceum Director Jim Mackay, left, and Bernard Kempinski stand with the 1:35 scale submarine chaser model Kempinski built for the museum’s World War I exhibit (Courtesy Photo)

Instead, Mackay and Kempinski turned to a little-known shipyard — upriver near present-day Rivergate City Park at the foot of Montgomery Street in north Old Town — and a class of comparatively tiny ships less well-remembered by history.

“Many people are aware of the large shipyard at Jones [Point],” Mackay wrote in an email. “But very few people (myself included) have ever heard of submarine chasers during WWI, much less that more than a dozen were built in town during the war.”

Indeed, 15 sub-chasers were built in Alexandria, including the USS SC201, immortalized in 1:35 scale by Kempinski’s model. The General Shipbuilding and Aeroplane Co. bought an existing Alexandria shipyard owned by Charles Dean
in May 1917 as a place to build sub-chasers, Kempinski wrote in an email.

“This shipyard was a remarkable find for me during the exhibit research process,” Mackay wrote in an email. “I have yet to find a period photo of the yard, … but it was a significant operation.”

The model ship is part of “Alexandrians Fight The Great War,” which opened June 30 at the Lyceum and runs through Nov. 11, 2019 — 101 years after the armistice and a century after President Woodrow Wilson declared what is now Veterans Day.

The Splinter Fleet

Laid down hastily at 31 different shipyards to wildly varying specifications, the 441 sub-chasers built each carried a complement of about two-dozen officers
and crew.

Life on the sub-chasers wasn’t comfortable, Kempinski said, and ships returned to port every week or two to refurbish.

“In the seas it was very hard to sleep ‘cause they rolled so bad,” he said. “But they were very seaworthy, ‘cause they had this hull based on an old Gloucester fishing boat.”

Because of that hull, the 110 foot long wooden ships —of which 303 entered U.S. Navy service during World War I — were relatively slow, cruising at 12 knots and topping out at about 18, Kempinski said. It was just fast enough to catch submarines of that era, but the so-called “splinter fleet” found its niche elsewhere.

“They never really had much success chasing submarines,” Kempinski said. “But they did a lot of other things: they swept mines, they were communications vehicles. So they were like utility boats for the Navy.”

As a quick-to-build ship class put into service just as the U.S. entered World War I, the “splinter fleet” and its men and builders took up their vital task with pride.

“The boats themselves were an innovative approach to a serious problem,” Mackay wrote.

“It was a great wartime use of existing shipyard resources and expertise.”

Unsurpassed craftsmanship

While kits of the 75-ton oak- and pine-built ships do exist, none were available,

Bernard Kempinski believes he spent about 100 hours over two months on his 1:35 scale model of
SC201, a World War I submarine chase that measured 110 feet long (Courtesy Photo)

so Kempinski built the roughly yard-long model from scratch.

Plans for the sub-chasers can be found online, Kempinski said, but weren’t all that clear.

“They never are,” he says, “so I had to [do] some interpolation.”

The ships varied slightly depending on which yard fulfilled the order. In Alexandria, for instance, due to the Port City’s long shipbuilding heritage, the expertise concentrated on a specific method of making a wood hull, Kempinski said.

“When you look at the surviving pictures of these things, they’re all different,” he said. “Then you have to figure out how … to do the one that they want.”

Kempinski utilized a few commercial touches here and there on his model, like propellers, funnels and the lifeboat.

But for the most part, he laser-cut pieces of poplar and basswood to fit his needs, with laser-cut acrylic windows and a few metal pieces here and there.

A photo of the model in the process of being built (Courtesy Photo)

“I cut out the main pieces on the laser and build it up, and you just start with the little pieces and keep building them up until you get where you are,” he explained. “Most of the parts are just simple little shapes, and you just have to make each little shape and build them up.”

Kempinski budgeted the project for 50 hours, though he estimates it took closer to 100 hours over two months.

“It was a lot of long nights,” he said. “But I always do more than [budgeted], because I want it to look good.”

Mackay, from the Lyceum, said the extra work shows.

“His unsurpassed craftsmanship is obvious,” Mackay wrote. “What’s not is his absolute dedication to authenticity and public history.”

A good way to tell a story

Kempinski has been interested in models since childhood, but ships aren’t actually his specialty.

He’s an expert on model railroading, having authored about 40 articles and five

The finished product (Courtesy Photo)

books on the subject. Some titles include “Waterfront Terminals and Operations,” “The Model Railroader’s Guide to Steel Mills” and “Model Railroads Go to War,” among others.

His O-scale (1:48) U.S. Military Railroad layout, the Civil War-set “Aquia Line,” has been featured in Model Railroader magazine and is often the subject of Kempinski’s blog.

Kempinski’s son originally got him interested in trains, and even though his son’s interest waned, Kempinski has made the hobby into a business alongside his day job.

He builds niche models for himself and a few modeler friends that are too specific for major manufacturers to produce, then makes and sells extras to offset the cost, he said.

SC201 is his third model for the Lyceum, following dioramas of a Civil War-era carfloat that ferried railroad cars across the Potomac on barges and of the Pioneer Mill that was once Alexandria’s largest building.

He also has models at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore and at Tennessee’s Lincoln Memorial University, he said.

“I think models are great in a museum setting,” Kempinski said. “They’re … a good way to tell a story.”

Kempinski shied away from Mackay’s assessment that his SC201 model “is the highlight of the exhibit,” pointing to artifacts like a fully preserved soldier’s trunk nearby, among others.

But, he concedes, “it would be hard to have this whole ship on display,” so a model “is a nice 3D visualization.”

As for the future, Kempinski said there are a few more scenes of Alexandria’s past he could see making for the Lyceum, including President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train, which was built in the Port City and which he’s already modeled for the B&O Museum.

“I think [Mackay] will come up with something,” Kempinski said, admiring his handiwork in the Coldsmith Gallery. “One of these days soon I’ll be retiring, so I’ll have a lot more time on my hands to build models.”