$250,000 gift helps buoy SS United States

 The SS United States, which held speed records for Atlantic crossings, is docked in the Delaware River in South Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

The SS United States, which held speed records for Atlantic crossings, is docked in the Delaware River in South Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

An anonymous donor has given the huge SS United States ship docked in South Philadelphia $250,000, one of the largest gifts the vessel’s nonprofit owner has ever received.

The SS United States Conservancy says a gift last year from cruise industry executive Jim Pollin, who called on others to match his $120,000 donation, has brought about a surge of new money.

“This individual was inspired by that generosity and the story of the ship,” said conservancy spokesman Thomas Basile, who would not disclose the donor’s location, but did note that the gift came with no strings on how it may be used.

The donation will go toward advancing efforts to redevelop the vessel, including feasibility studies looking into what it will take to convert the rotting ship into something more inviting.

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Right now, the vessel costs from $60,000 to $80,000 a month to just maintain. The vast bulk of that cost is due to renting pier space, insurance premiums and paying dockworkers who monitor the ship, which has been floating in the Delaware River in South Philadelphia for nearly two decades.

“When you think what it costs to get a monthly space for your car in downtown Philadelphia, it’s probably a few hundred bucks,” Basile said. “Well, now we have basically three city blocks that we have to pay for.”

The nearly 1,000-foot vessel, which still holds the record for the fastest trip across the Atlantic by an ocean liner, is hard to miss. Truck driver Dave Nadolny has been loading 18-wheelers for a decade near the Ikea store, within view of the ship.

“It would be so much better if they can actually do something with it,” Nadolny said. “I just think it’s an amazing ship. I think it could really add to the ambience of the port area.”

The ship made its maiden voyage in 1952 and is estimated to have taken 400 trips around the world. Notable passengers have included Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, John F. Kennedy and several other presidents and heads of state.

The interior of the ship has been stripped down, and the conservancy says they are working with federal environmental officials to ensure that harmful toxins are cleared before the 500,000 square feet of useable space is redeveloped.

Repurposing the ship is a costly proposition.

Conservancy officials have said it could cost anywhere between $170 million to $300 million to complete the conversion. In 2012, the latest year for which tax records are available, the conservancy generated $1.4 million in revenue.

Even if a buyer steps forward, most reports have noted that moving the ship to New York is a likely scenario, since conservancy officials figure it would attract more visitors there.

If that becomes reality, truck driver Nadolny, for one, will be disappointed.

“That would definitely bum me out,” he said. “New York seems to get everything.”

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