Deal for SS United States faces deadline

The SS United States Conservancy, beneficiaries of a $5.8 million pledge from philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, is in the home stretch of securing title to the 990-foot-long ocean liner.

Last spring, the Conservancy has signed a six-month exclusive purchase option with the ship’s current owners, Genting Hong Kong, a move which saved the ship from certain scrapping.

As of Jan. 7, however, less than a month remains in this option agreement. Thanks to Lenfest, the Conservancy has the money to purchase the ship, but is still negotiating with the Environmental Protection Agency to finalize the sale.

“We’re approaching a major milestone in our years-long effort to save the SS United States,” said the Conservancy’s executive director Dan McSweeney, “and thousands of supporters across the country and world understand the stakes we’re facing and our overall mission.  We won’t let them down.”

The Conservancy is now raising funds to pay for upcoming title transfer costs, as well as seed money for the non-profit component portion of the ship, namely the museum, educational programs, and historic restoration of portions of the interiors to their original grandeur.

“Our immediate goal is $1 million,” said McSweeney, “and we think we can do it.”

Since July 1 of last year, when it was announced that Lenfest had pledged enough money to purchase the ship and maintain her for 20 months, the big ocean liner has been the subject of much discussion by the design and development community. At the National Flagship Celebration, Mayor Michael Nutter declared that the ship is a “national treasure” and “the most important landmark on the waterfront.”

Lenfest, whose naval architect father designed some of the ship’s bridge equipment and watertight doors, added that “the Conservancy has a big job ahead,” and that the 1950s ocean liner, which still holds the North Atlantic speed record, is “worth keeping, and worth saving.”

On November 21, following months of work, the Conservancy and Stephen Varenhorst Architects unveiled a redevelopment study with the ship as the centerpiece of a mixed-used development at Reed and Tasker Streets, otherwise known as the “Foxwoods site” then under the control of Philadelphia Entertainment & Development Partners L.P. (PEDP). The ship would be docked in a slip perpendicular to the river bank, with a large public plaza in front. Surrounding the ship would be new buildings housing residential, retail, and casino.

In various scenarios, part of the gaming operations would be located on the ship’s lower decks. The upper decks, including the ballroom and the navigation bridge, would be restored to their original 1950s appearance and ambience, and would boast spaces for meetings, dining, a museum, and a boutique hotel.

“We are convinced that our national flagship could anchor a world-class development opportunity along the Delaware River,” said Conservancy President Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of William Francis Gibbs, the vessel’s designer. “This project could do it all: generate jobs and tax revenues, offer important public amenities, and educate and inspire the public about an extraordinary historical achievement.”

It is estimated that the cost of renovating the ship as a stationary attraction will be in the range of $200 million. Most of these funds, the Conservancy makes clear, should come from for-profit development partners. The immediate goal for the Conservancy is to raise money from private donors to cover costs associated with title transfer, as well as start planning for the non-profit components of the vessel – museum space, restoration of historic spaces, and educational programs.

The Varenhorst proposal, which was sponsored by Lenfest, was not endorsed by PEDP. The group insisted that they already had a big box casino planned for the site. Yet the proposal did not die despite PEDP’s lack of interest. On Dec. 7, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a piece stating that should PEDP lose its license, Lenfest and the Conservancy were interested in promoting the ship-centered development to a new group of investors.

The idea of the ship as the center of a mixed-use casino development has won praise from the design community. On Dec. 6, Joanne Aitken, the chair of the Design Advocacy Group, released a letter endorsing the Varenhorst proposal. “The genius of the plan is that it is organized around an open public space and the beautiful sculptural object of the SS United States,” she wrote. Noting that the plan meets the criteria of the Vision Plan for the Central Delaware, Aitken concluded that, “if there is to be another casino on the waterfront, this is the proverbial win-win. What’s stopping us?”

Not everyone welcomed the idea of the ship as part of a casino development. On Dec. 15, the Pennsport Civic Association wrote the Pennsylvania State Gaming Board asking that they revoke the license for the Foxwoods site. “Although we support the restoration of the ship and find it most desirable for the ship to remain in Philadelphia,” the association wrote, “we do not support the notion of the ship as a casino.”

On Dec. 16, the Pennsylvania State Gaming Board revoked PEDP’s casino license for the site. Following the announcement, First District Councilman Frank DiCicco told WHYY that he would support using the ship as a casino, “as long as neighbors support the location.”

Philadelphia is not the only city in the running: the Conservancy is also in talks with New York City about berthing the ship somewhere on the Hudson River, possibly next to the USS Intrepid.

“The Lenfest gift gives us a fighting chance to save the SS United States,” said Gibbs.  “We know we’re in a race against time and face a challenging economic climate. However, we are determined to save this vessel for future generations.”

It remains to be seen whether the remarkable developments of the past month will pave the way for things to move forward in Philadelphia, where the ship has been berthed for the past 15 years in the hometown of her designer William Francis Gibbs. 

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.

He can be contacted at sujifusa@planphilly.com

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