A grandfather took advantage of recent unseasonably spring-like weather by taking his grandson on a tour of the retired Battleship New Jersey, a floating museum on the waterfront.
After an audio tour of the largest Navy battleship and navigating ladders between decks of the nearly 900-foot-long, Iowa-class vessel, Fran Simpson and his grandson Connor Mulqueeny of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, realized they were hungry as they walked down the ship's gangway and onto the pier.
However, no food service was available at the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial visitors' center on the promenade adjacent to the pier. But that will soon change.
Construction is expected to begin by summer to convert the museum's gift shop into an indoor-outdoor cafe with a target opening in the fall, museum officials tell the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill.
"We may have stayed a little longer if we could have eaten here," said Simpson, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War who said he remembered hearing naval gunfire off the Vietnam coast near Danang and now realizes it must have been the New Jersey's big guns.
John Bomberger and his family from Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, said they, too, might have bought at least a snack if it was available after their tour.
Two more projects underway on the ship also focus on consumption - energy changes to save on heat and electricity.
"We have a very aggressive agenda we want to accomplish for 2017, including an engineering tour of boiler and engine rooms, and we are looking to start the cafe this year," said Walter Urban Jr., a retired U.S. Navy captain who is museum board of trustees chairman.
This year also will mark the 75th anniversary of the ship's launching from the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on Dec. 7, 1942, one year to the day after the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Plans are still being made for a major commemorative ceremony Dec. 7.
Museum CEO Philip Rowan said a majority of visitors want food service.
"It's the No. 1 request of about 80 percent of our visitors,'' Rowan said during a recent tour of the ship to point out where 2017 improvements or repairs will be made. "Many come from a distance and want to eat before or after touring the ship.
The cafe will be called the Black Dragon, a reference to the ship's nickname and its ship-to-ship code name during World War II. The ship was painted dark blue instead of battleship gray to be stealthy and less visible to the enemy at night in the Pacific Ocean.
Rowan said the cafe will have a World War II motif reminiscent of military canteens where soldiers often ate and listened to music. Planners are considering a jukebox to supply music in the new cafe.
"Another goal on the pier is to clean it up and remove two old trailers where we used to have offices,'' he said.
Adding food service is part of the $4.4 million budget for 2017, a figure $300,000 higher than last year. The cafe cost estimate of $150,000 would cover counter installation, furniture and a commercial kitchen with ventilation and safety features.
Rowan said the plan calls for most souvenirs in the main gift shop to be consolidated into the onboard gift shop, which is already undergoing renovation.
The battleship offers daily or weekend food service in the ships' chow line but not during winter except for special catered events, weekend overnight encampments and some holidays. Regardless, most hot foods have to be prepared off the ship and then brought on board and reheated in microwaves, atop hot water pans and in heated glass cabinets. Hot dogs are heated on roller grills.
"One of the issues with the Navy is that we can't cook in the ship's galley because there is no ventilation system. We do use the sinks and some equipment, but not the stoves,'' Rowan explained, "so our answer is really to have some food off the ship as well."
"And," he added happily, "we will at last be able to offer Philly cheesesteaks, hoagies and salads."
Chow line food that includes soups, sandwiches, chili, hot dogs, hamburgers, pretzels and beverages is offered for lunch on weekends beginning April 1. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, lunch also is offered daily from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then weekend service resumes until winter.
The ship reopened for daily tours Wednesday.
To save money, the museum is converting its heat from electric to gas and is installing American-made LED tubes to replace fluorescent tubes in lighting fixtures.
Rowan said major grants have been obtained by staff to cover all or most of both projects, including a $382,000 grant from the state Board of Public Utilities for the lighting conversion and a combined $500,000 in city, Camden County and BPU grants toward the $750,000 cost of the heating conversion.
Rowan projects yearly savings of more than $110,000 for heating and $50,000 to $75,000 for lighting. Last year its utility costs exceeded a half million dollars.
PSE&G recently completed installation of a four-inch gas main from Clinton Street to the ship pier, where two gas boilers will be installed soon at the southern end of the pier to serve the ship.
"Our biggest challenge is yearly revenue to cover salaries, insurance, utilities, event costs and depreciation. We have been getting a grant from the state that helps us operate and certainly we need it," he explained.
The state grant of $1.4 million received in 2016 and expected this year is from an historic preservation program within the state Department of Environmental Protection. The museum has 15 full-time employees, a host of part-time employees and many volunteers.
The Steam to Speed tour of the engineering spaces on the bottom deck will be offered as a premium tour aside from the regular tour. Today only the long "Broadway" corridor that leads to all the engine and boiler rooms on both sides is open to visitors.
The current Turret 2 Experience is also a separate and premium tour, allowing visitors to go from loading powder bags at the turret's bottom to seeing the loading of ammunition shells with the bags into the 16-inch-diameter gun barrels at the top of the turret.
Some of the other ongoing projects are the piecemeal replacement of teak deck, repairs on rusted-through steel upper deck areas and reconfiguration of several exhibits. "There is always ongoing maintenance to be done all over the ship," Rowan said.
During Presidents Day weekend, 924 daily visitors toured, which Rowan said was a phenomenal number for a February weekend. Tourists come from all over the world.
The ship boasts the largest U.S. naval guns ever manufactured and is the most decorated U.S. battleship with 19 campaign stars from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War and the Beirut Crisis.
"This tour was better than the Midway," said visitor Simpson, referring to a post-World War II aircraft carrier that is now a museum in San Diego.
Bomberger said the tour "gives you a real feeling on the New Jersey of what it would be like to live on a ship."
"We've also toured the Missouri (a sister ship of the New Jersey) in Pearl Harbor, but I think this was a better tour. You got to see more of the ship," he said.