By Steven B. Ujifusa
The SS United States continues to sit idle at Pier 82 in South Philadelphia, growing rustier each day. For commuters ignorant of the ship and its history, the 57-year-old liner is merely another eyesore on the city’s decrepit waterfront.
The sorry state of the world’s fastest commuting vessel (she has been berthed on Columbus Boulevard since 1996 and was listed for sale in February by Norwegian Cruise Line/Star Cruises) is something The SS United States Conservancy wants to change.
The national non-profit entity, based in Washington, D.C., has been focusing much time and effort in raising public awareness and support for the liner in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. The group’s ultimate goal is that the ship be preserved as a stationary floating attraction in a major American city.
Time is running out. The Hong Kong-based shipping company that promised to restore the ship to cruise service when they purchased her in 2003, has decided the venture will not be economically feasible. If no other buyer steps forward, the United States may be headed to the scrap yard.
Philadelphia has been seen as a strong possibility as a future home for the ship for two reasons. The first is the ongoing redevelopment of the Delaware waterfront. If done properly, the ship could become a vibrant multi-purpose hotel, waterfront convention center, an historic destination; a sort of tall ship Moshulu on steroids. At the Nov. 10 presentation by the five design teams competing for the Central Delaware master plan job, Beyer Blinder Belle’s display showed the SS United States as a possible historic attraction in its “bracelet of charms” concept.
Thomas Corcoran, president of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., met with representatives of the SS United States Conservancy last month. Corcoran has experience with historic vessels as stationary attractions. He successfully integrated the battleship USS New Jersey into the Camden waterfront.
“It still holds the record for the fastest transatlantic crossing ever in 1952 on its maiden voyage,” Corcoran said in a September 22 WHYY Radio Times interview, “and it should have been treated by this country with more respect …” The ship’s current condition, he stated, was “a disgrace.”
The ship also is rooted by a strong Philadelphia connection. Her designer, William Francis Gibbs (1886-1967), grew up on North Broad Street and Rittenhouse Square, and credited his love of ships and the sea to watching the liner St. Louis launch from the Cramps Shipyard in Kensington as a young boy. In that way, the ship Mr. Gibbs created and cared so deeply for has “come home.”
Following the listing for sale, the SS United States Conservancy has mounted several events in the Philadelphia area. This summer, it was announced that philanthropist Gerry Lenfest had pledged a $300,000 matching grant towards the purchase of the ship, which at current scrap prices is estimated to be relatively low. Lenfest’s father, a naval architect, helped design the ship’s watertight doors in the early 1950s.
“I think she’s smiling at us,” former crewmember Joseph Rota told the audience.
Thomas Watkins, a retired Philadelphia judge who was instrumental in securing the Lenfest grant, was awarded the Conservancy’s Blue Riband Award. “I’d like to say that just as the Statue of Liberty does for the Harbor of New York, this ship represents the greatness of America,” he said with the ship behind him. “It represents our engineering abilities, our pride, our ability to get things done; it represents our competitive nature, and what a tragedy it would be to lose her. Susan’s Gibbs’ grandfather’s ship will not wind up on a beach in India being cut-up.”
It was at this meeting that it was announced that Congressman Joe Sestak (7th Penna), Democratic Senate candidate and retired admiral, has lent his written support to the Conservancy’s efforts to preserve the ship.
On Aug. 26, the Conservancy partnered with the Independence Seaport Museum for a screening of the acclaimed American Public Television documentary SS United States: Lady in Waiting. The free event attracted about 300 people to the museum’s auditorium, as well as reporters from CBS3 Action News and KYW News, who broadcast the story later that night. The high attendance was in part due to Inga Saffron’s Inquirer report about the SS United States two days earlier. In the story, Conservancy Board Chair Susan Gibbs argued that she ship “could have a future in the city as a tourist attraction, much like … the aircraft carrier Intrepid in New York.”
On Sept. 15, City Council President Anna C. Verna sent the SS United States Conservancy a letter of support for their efforts in Philadelphia. “I am hopeful that this magnificent ocean liner can be restored to her original grandeur and become a riverfront attraction in our city for residents and visitors,” she wrote. “I am confident … that through the efforts of the Conservancy and its many supporters, this vessel will have not only an historic past but a long and bright future.”
And on Sept. 29, the Wall Street Journal ran a front page story entitled “Fans of World’s Fastest Ocean Liner Put Out a Distress Call.” In the piece, Conservancy executive director McSweeney stated that as far as the ship’s future goes, the next several months are “endgame.” McSweeney also announced that the Conservancy is ramping up for a major fundraising campaign to match Lenfest’s grant and raise money for a redevelopment scheme and a comprehensive business plan for the ship as a stationary attraction. Returning the ship to sea, the Conservancy feels, would be cost prohibitive.
Ultimately, the Conservancy hopes not just to raise money, but also to raise a broad-based, public groundswell of support to save the ship from destruction. It also hopes that Philadelphians will finally realize that the SS United States is not an eyesore, but an historic treasure and a potential adornment to the Delaware River.
“Yes we do have a long way to go,” McSweeney told the South Philly Review on Aug. 13, “but, however, you reach a point of critical mass, you reach a threshold, and things become possible.”
ON THE WEB:
SS United States Conservancy website: http://www.ssunitedstatesconservancy.org
Jesse Pesta, “Fans of World’s Fastest Ocean Liner Put Out Distress Call,” The Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2009. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125417162355547323.html#
CBS3 Story, August 27, 2009: “Transatlantic Liner May Be Scrapped”: http://cbs3.com/local/S.S.SS.2.1146096.html
Inga Saffron, “SOS: Plans for Faded Ocean Liner,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 24, 2009
Lorraine Gennaro, “Sending Out an S.O.S.,” South Philly Review, August 13, 2009. http://www.southphillyreview.com/view_article.php?id=8677
Thom Nickels, “IKEA Come Out for the SS United States,” The Weekly Press, August 5, 2009. http://www.weeklypress.com/default.asp?sourceid=&smenu=1&twindow=&mad=&sdetail=1447&wpage=1&skeyword=&sidate=&ccat=&ccatm=&restate=&restatus=&reoption=&retype=&repmin=&repmax=&rebed=&rebath=&subname=&pform=&sc=2392&hn=weeklypress&he=.com
Steven Ujifusa is a board member of the SS United States Conservancy, and is writing a book on the ship and her designer, William Francis Gibbs, tentatively titled The Ideal Ship. It is scheduled to be published by Twelve Books in mid- to late 2010. Contact the reporter at