A big step for the Big U

This afternoon, at a reception at the South Philadelphia IKEA cafe, the ocean liner SS United States became the property of the SS United States Conservancy. According to the terms of the $5.8 million grant from philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, the nonprofit group now has 20 months to raise the funds needed to redevelop the ship as a stationary attraction, most likely either in New York or Philadelphia.

The Conservancy’s executive director Daniel J. McSweeney declared to the press that the “SS United States is now open for business,” and that Conservancy is now actively searching for development partners in the hospitality, dining, and retail sectors.  The ship, which is over three football fields long, boasts 650,000 square feet of usable space. The Conservancy has just launched $1 million capital campaign to develop plans for historic restoration of the parts of the interiors and a world-class museum. “We hope that this initial campaign will start the fundraising snowball rolling down the hill,” McSweeney said. “What an historic day, a testament to our volunteers and supporters across the country who did not lose faith in the effort to redevelop and honor an important American symbol.”

The keynote address was delivered by Thomas D. Watkins, a retired federal judge who introduced his friend Gerry Lenfest to the Conservancy two years ago. In his remarks, he touched both on ship’s illustrious history and the journey ahead. “A son of Philadelphia, William Francis Gibbs, the greatest ship designer who ever lived, created from the depths of his soul,” Watkins told reporters, “and the wellspring of his unique experiences, the fastest, sleekest, and most beautiful transoceanic liner ever created … the sight of his great vessel, looming over the horizon, crashing at speed through wind and waves indeed made many heart skip a beat or two.”

“She seemed for so long to be sad, forlorn, and resigned to her fate,” Watkins added. “But take a look. Can’t you see a faint smile crossing her bow?  Don’t those stacks seem a bit more proud and straight? A little make-up, a new frock, some renewed love. No lady can resist that. Good as new, that’s what she will be!  We cannot tell the future, but we can celebrate the present, and today we celebrate.”

Following the speeches, the title transfer papers were signed and ownership of the ship was formally transferred from Genting Hong Kong Ltd to the SS United States Conservancy.

Signing the title transfer papers was particularly moving for Conservancy president Susan Gibbs, the granddaughter of William Francis Gibbs (1886-1967).  “My grandfather would be overjoyed to know that his beloved vessel has not been forgotten,” said Gibbs, “and will be redeveloped for a new generation, and will be just as inspirational as she was back in 1952.”

For Conservancy board member and Glenside firefighter Jeff Henry, the day could not be sweeter, as he has been advocating for the ship’s preservation for over a decade. “I never thought 12 years ago that we’d get to this point,” he said. “It is exhilarating.”  His 12 year old daughter Ava grew up attending events with her father, and even had her own nickname for the ship once known as “The Big U”:  “The Big Me.”

Board member Susan Caccavale of Smithtown, New York also has a strong family tie to the ship: her mother Elaine Kaplan worked closely with Gibbs on the ship’s design. In fact, she was the only woman engineer on the 50 person Gibbs & Cox design team, and affectionately referred to the ship as her “first baby.” “Now my mother and I have the same baby,” she said.

Philadelphia-based Atlantic Logistics will remain the caretakers of the ship during the Conservancy’s ownership.  Company president John Reynolds declared, “We are determined to make a viable project out of the ship and we are starting right away.” His partner Nick Manzi, who has spent countless hours maintaining the vessel, added that, “we are going to breathe new life into the effort to keep her going and keeping her around.”

After the reception, a few board members lingered and stared silently at the ship through the café windows. A light drizzle fell on the ship, which was loomed gray and silent above the parking lot.  They were contemplating the road ahead, as well as vision of the future:  her decks were awash with light, her ballrooms and lounges echoing with music and laughter, her finned funnels gleaming red, white and blue, and the Stars and Stripes fluttering proudly from her radar mast.  

Steven B. Ujifusa is a PlanPhilly contributor and a board member of the SS United States Conservancy, a national nonprofit dedicated to saving the SS United States and preserving her historical legacy.  A resident of Center City, he is working on a general interest book on the SS United States and the life of her designer, Philadelphia-native William Francis Gibbs.

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