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Sail Through History: Exploring the Restored Presidential Yacht of JFK and Jackie O

Jack Fhillips Leads Three-Year Restoration of JFK and Jackie O’s Presidential Yacht

Amidst the turmoil and uncertainty of 2020, designer Jack Fhillips received the project of the lifetime: a complete restoration of the presidential Honey Fitz yacht that is most often associated with JFK and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

At the time, the nearly 100-year-old vessel needed an extensive architectural overhaul to save it from “certain demise,” according to Fhillips. Charles Modica, a longtime client and local developer in Palm Beach County, had purchased the run-down ship and was seeking a historical interiors transformation that would replicate the decor of the Kennedy era as closely as possible.

Preceding Air Force One, presidential yachts (affectionately known as “Floating White Houses”) were important destinations for escaping the “claustrophobic tension” of the Oval Office, Henry Kissinger wrote. They were used for everything from meetings with prominent world leaders to pleasure cruises down the Potomac after a tough day of running a country.

A revolutionary yacht in terms of speed upon its inaugural launch in 1931, the Honey Fitz served five consecutive U.S. presidents: Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon, after being originally commissioned for Sewell Avery of Montgomery Ward, one of the most prominent retail behemoths of the day. Though Nixon renamed the boat Patricia in honor of his wife, and it has since been renamed and repurposed by various private owners, the ship is best known as Honey Fitz in popular culture once JFK took the helm, and Modica sought to restore the vessel to its highest prominence.

john kennedy relaxingBettmann//Getty Images

This 1963 photo showcases JFK relaxing on the Honey Fitz off of West Palm Beach, near where the vessel resides today.

“After 50 years of practicing, this project was a perfect and natural fit for my firm,” says Fhillips, who has a background in historical preservation as well as interiors, and, as a resident of Palm Beach County, has worked on many private yachts.

The Honey Fitz first went through a three-year restoration process that required a complete overhaul of beams, subfloor, decks, and the superstructure of the yacht in line with experts in traditional shipwright methods, wooden yacht craftsmen, historical records, and U.S. Coast Guard regulations.

Fhillips finally got to take the reins with the interiors in January 2023 after combing through archived photographs, footage, and articles written about the ship, alongside the Honey Fitz‘s captain and first mate. The team was able to piece together an immaculate interiors refitting and restoration that honors the ship’s most historic (and glamorous) era during the Kennedy administration. Below, you can see a side-by-side view of the ship setting sail in 1961 and today.

uss honey fitzBettmann//Getty Images

a boat on the waterCarmel Brantley

“We serendipitously located the original company, Bielecky Brothers, in Queens, New York that Jackie Kennedy sourced for all the rattan furniture on the aft deck,” Fhillips says.

To honor the yacht’s storied past, Fhillips says, “We located copies of hand sketches of built-in sofas Jackie Kennedy drew on White House stationary that was recreated by a very talented man, Brad London, of Total Refit, Inc.

a room with blue couches and a tableCarmel Brantley

The aft deck not only features recreations of Jackie O.’s original furniture designs, but also period-appropriate elements, such as a black telephone like the one JFK would use for taking calls aboard.

Those sofas are the focal point of the main salon, and the team also recreated the rattan oxbow club chairs, then styled the space with Kennedy family photos that would have been on the ship during the 1960s, as well as other memorabilia. Plenty more Kennedy mementos can be found in the stateroom in a vintage blue leather suitcase.

Modica had an English Regency-era antique dining set that was appropriate of the time that makes a perfect pairing with the LismoreWaterford crystal stemware reminiscent to the pattern gifted to JFK by the People of Ireland. The built-in buffet was rebuilt to its original integrity as well.

a flag on a boatCarmel Brantley

All of the furniture is covered in Perennials fabrics.

“My favorite spot on the boat would have to be the aft deck,” Fhillips says. “It is so historically correct, from the iconic Kennedy captain’s chair to the black telephone JFK used to the left of the chair. The rattan furniture was recreated, and we even located vintage gout stools that were seen in old photographs.”

While the ship has completed its service to our country’s presidents, it’s certain to have a glamorous new era as it enters its next century. The Honey Fitz will now serve for use on limited charters and fundraising events, an ever-present reminder of the enduring legacy—and style—of both John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
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