With sale, storied cruise liner stays afloat

On Tuesday, the SS United States Conservancy bought the SS United States (or what remains of it – the interior is gutted) for $3 million.

“My grandfather said, ‘You can’t set her on fire, you can’t sink her, and you can’t catch her’,” said Susan Gibbs, president of the SS United States Conservancy. “That was one of his many somewhat bombastic claims about his prize.”

Gibbs’ grandfather, William Gibbs, design the SS United States in the early 1950s. It would be the cruise liner of choice for presidents, members of royalty and Hollywood stars. It also set the record for the fasted trans-Atlantic run, a record it still holds.

Now its glory is more of an industrial relic than a luxury cruise liner. Its rusting hulk has been docked on the Delaware River near the big box stores on South Columbus Boulevard.

William Gibbs ultimately may have been correct. His prize has been saved from the scrap heap.

On Tuesday, the Conservancy bought the ship (or what remains of it – the interior is gutted) for $3 million. It was possible due to a donation of $5.8 million from philanthropist Gerry Lenfest.

The remaining money will be used to maintain the ship in its dock for 20 months.

The sale was an eleventh-hour dash by the Conservancy, which was racing to buy the ship from Norwegian Cruise Lines before a rival could snap it up and dismantle it for scrap metal.

Lenfest stepped in after he was introduced to the plight of the ship by state Judge Thomas Watkins.

“She represents American ingenuity, the post-war American can-do spirit,” said Watkins. “Like the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, the Golden Gate Bridge, those great American icons, she is indeed one of those.”

The next phase of the ship’s life could be as an urban redevelopment project.

The Conservancy has neither the money nor the resources to keep the ship in perpetuity. For the next 20 months — until the Lenfest money runs out – its members will be talking with private developers about partnering to make the SS United States a revenue-generating attraction, such as a hotel or casino.

That could mean the ship will be relocated. Susan Gibbs says she has had preliminary talks with possible partners in New York City and Miami, as well as Philadelphia.

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