“Ding, ding … ding, ding,” chimes the nautical clock every half hour inside the Nautical History Gallery & Museum at 1012 Pearl St. More than 10 model ships and hundreds of antique nautical artifacts from different eras in American history decorate the small room and workshop of Marine Corps and Navy veteran Joe Frangiosa.
With the vision of a soldier, sailor and helicopter crew chief and the talent and attention to detail of a craftsman, Frangiosa made all model ships in the exhibit and collected the numerous historic artifacts. He opened the space in March and since has been receiving visitors 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday to Sunday.
Most of his model ships were built during his time in the Navy Corps between deployments as an escape from very stressful situations that will forever live in his mind. “I’d make them when I came back home, instead of going out and getting drunk or sitting around, because you can’t get things out of your head, the only way is to stay busy,” he said.
Frangiosa started building model ships as a child in his home state of New Jersey, “But those weren’t like these here. They were from a plastic kit, but I would get bored with those and add dollhouse hinges and metal to make it work and more interesting, and that’s what eventually evolved to the handmade fabrication of the models you see now.”
The materials he uses are chiefly wood and metal, but he also adapts ordinary objects for his purposes, like piano wire, pieces of jewelry and shoe parts. “I use all kinds of interesting jewelry pieces to make the models more detailed, but I still like to have the texture of metal and wood,” he said.
He joined the Navy when he was 19 and served for four years. He was honorably discharged and then joined the Marine Corps, where he deployed several times until retiring in 2015. “This is therapeutic for me so I’d love to inspire other guys — I haven’t been out that long and my buddies are still in. I visit them, and they come here,” he said.
The Nautical History Gallery & Museum is, as Frangiosa puts it, “A peaceful place for me to be retired that I created.” Since a visit to the museum is free, he takes commissions for 3-D models and restores others, “so the rent pays itself off.”
The 49-year-old moved to La Jolla in 2011 when he was stationed in the Miramar Marine Air Corps Station. He met local artist James Quint and eventually rented out the Pearl Street storefront from him (space used by Quint Galleries for storage). “Quint discovered me,” he laughed.
Two of Frangiosa’s models are currently part of the “Steering Small” exhibit at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, 1492 N Harbor Drive.
A glance at U.S. Navy history
“Have you ever held a sail ship cannon ball?” Frangiosa asked, holding a heavy iron cylinder about 2 inches in diameter located near one of his ship models. The room is decorated with sextants, telescopes, port holes, post lights, anchors and all sorts of nautical artifacts collected through a lifetime, which help him tell the story of the U.S. Navy from its beginnings to the aircraft carrier age.
In the 1790s, he explained, Congress appropriated funds to create an official Navy to defend the country from pirates. The USS Constitution is Frangiosa’s model of a three-mast frigate of the time. “They were very powerful, strong, fast, ships. They are not that large, but they could do the job against any enemy,” he explained.
The next sailboat model in the chronology is the USS Vermont, built in 1814 and similar to the USS Constitution, but with one innovation: It featured three stacked gun decks instead of one. The ship manned by 1,100 soldiers contained 110 guns. “This is a very powerful ship of the time,” Frangiosa said. “There were a few of these, and they actually served in the Navy, but it was after The War of 1812, so they didn’t have any real wars to use it in.”
Still a work-in-progress is the side paddle steamship. This ship featured coal boilers that heated up steam, which travelled through the engines and made the paddles spin. “With paddle wheelers, the engines were built in the center of the ship and then there were paddle wheelers on each side. They are the direct evolution from the age of sail ships, the age of wooden sail to the steam era.”
The Civil War (1861-1865) was fought with a combined fleet of sail and steam ships. The Union Gun Boat is the miniature of an all-iron, 150-foot warship used in the era featuring a single propeller at the back instead of two on the sides. Manned by 60-70 people, “She was the latest innovation from the side wheeler, more efficient, and everything was just getting better; easier to operate. Ironclads, as they were called, were made with better and stronger things, the anchors were designed differently, the ship’s wheel is iron with wood, instead of just all wood, more durable and better.”
A ship from the Spanish-American War (1898) is also featured in the gallery, the USS Maine. Built in 1985 using steel instead of iron and manned by 3,400 soldiers, the ship was 325 feet long and had two triple expansion steam engines. The ship’s explosion is regarded as the cause of the Spanish-American War.
Frangiosa explained, “They sent this ship down (to Havana Harbor during the Cuban War of Independence) as a presence to help. It blew up. The government thought, or used it, (to start a conflict with Spain), and the American public believed it. At that point, the Navy sailed off down to Cuba and anywhere the Spaniards were, attacking their fleet until we destroyed it. Later in 1950s, a Navy admiral discovered that The Maine could not have been blown up by the Spanish, it was an accident and a tragedy.”
The Dreadnought was a battleship used during the first part of the 20th century. “See the smaller people,” he commented, “this ship is really long in real life, so in order to be able to transport the model around and make it workable, I did a smaller-scale version, but it still shows the intensity of the ship. It was eventually modernized; they changed the guns and started adding aircraft, as the Navy got into aviation. This model shows a lot of the evolution, with the first wire and the communications from ship to ship, all the big antennas and things like that. It’s an interesting time period for the Navy.”
The final ship in the collection is the USS Langley, which Frangiosa said was the first aircraft carrier. “They took an old WWI coal-carrying ship and built a wood flight deck across the top of it because we didn’t have the money to build an aircraft carrier. There were no wars at the time, so she operated as an aircraft carrier between 1922 and 1936. When we had newer aircraft carriers built, they took half the flight deck off and made it a seaplane base. During WWII, she was in the Java Sea and was sunk by the Japanese in 1942 as a seaplane tender,” he said.
IF YOU GO: The Nautical History Gallery & Museum at 1012 Pearl St. Admission is free. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. nhgallery.org