Todd French, the owner of French & Webb, a custom boat building company in Belfast, stands by the pilothouse of the USS Sequoia. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — 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 Sequoia yacht is underneath a white tarp.
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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Hoover began using it as the presidential yacht, and before Camp David was created, the boat was a place where the president could entertain people in a more relaxed setting than the White House.

Although there were other presidential yachts over the years, the Sequoia was special. Franklin Roosevelt hosted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill aboard the ship. John Kennedy celebrated his 46th, and last, birthday there, along with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, friends and two orchestras. Lyndon Johnson pressured members of Congress to pass his landmark civil rights legislation on the ship, and Nixon used it a lot during the Watergate hearings.

President Jimmy Carter, though, decided in 1977 to sell the Sequoia at auction as a cost-cutting measure. It went for $286,000. It has been in the private sector ever since, though prior to coming to Belfast had been the subject of protracted litigation after it was damaged at a boatyard in Virginia.

Michael Cantor currently owns the yacht through Equator Capital Group, a Washington, D.C.-based private equity investment firm where he serves as managing partner. Cantor said in 2019 that he intended to have a plank by plank restoration done to return the yacht to its former glory.

The Sequoia yacht goes through New York City on a giant barge.
The former presidential yacht Sequoia en route to Belfast, Maine in October 2019, passing under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. Credit: French & Webb

French said he was contacted several years ago by the owner to help with consulting work around the restoration. He ultimately became the project manager and brought the work to his own boatyard in Belfast.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to restoration work in the spring of 2020, and the owner has been “very deliberative” in getting it rolling again, French said.

“His approach to projects is to get everything figured out, and then press the go button,” he  said.

Because the Sequoia is on the National Register, the restoration must be of museum-level archival caliber, French said. The owner is choosing to do it as sustainably as possible.

One problem was how to source the replacement wood for the boat, which was constructed of longleaf pine. The tree is native to the southeastern U.S., and its high-quality lumber was used for building ships and railroads. But supplies were dwindling by the 1920s, when the Sequoia was built. There’s an effort to try to bring the trees back, and French was able to find some longleaf pine lumber after trees on conservation land in Georgia blew down in hurricanes. Now, 100,000 board feet of longleaf pine are drying in a Northport warehouse.

He also was able to find in Denmark a sustainable source for white oak, which was used for the framing. Lumber was cut from trees that had been  planted in the early 1800s for the Danish Navy but were “aging out” and needed to be harvested, he said. French bought container loads that then were shipped to Maine.

“Anything we need, it has to be certified and responsible,” he said.

The shipbuilder also needed to make a good model of the Sequoia to use for the restoration because the original Trumpy plans couldn’t be found. After the boat first arrived, it underwent a lidar scan, a laser technology that uses light pulses to generate precise, three-dimensional information.

“What we did was model this as it is,” French said.

There are lots and lots of historic photographs and archival information, some of which the boat’s owner has paid researchers to track down, that are critical to figuring out what is original to the Sequoia and what has been added over the years.

“The goal here is to have a true accounting of the boat and its history,” French said.

If the aim was simply to repair the boat, it would be a much faster project, he said. French hopes to construct a building around the Sequoia with a walkway so that the public can watch the restoration work being done, which could be done as soon as next spring. Once the physical work on the Sequoia begins, it should be a three-year project, he said.

“This is a national treasure. It’s part of our shared Americana,” he said. “I think we can educate the general population about American history a little bit in a way that isn’t partisan. This project, I hope, can put some salve on our collective consciousness and approach to politics.”