Lenfest keeps Big U alive

On July 2, 1952, thousands of people lined the Hudson River to watch the brand-new SS United States pull away from her pier and glide majestically out to sea. Bands played and streamers fluttered from her decks. Aboard were 1,700 passengers, Margaret Truman and Vincent Astor among them, as well as her designer William Francis Gibbs.

The press had been covering the new ship for weeks. The American public was captivated by her speed, her beauty, her modernity … and intrigued by her top secret design features. In her day, she definitely had star power. “The Fastest, Toughest, Most Beautiful,” Newsweek once called her.

Would the new American thoroughbred snatch the speed record away from Britain’s Queen Mary?

Almost exactly 58 years later, on July 1, 2010, a large crowd of between 500 to 1,000 people from all walks of life attended the National Flagship Celebration outside the South Philadelphia IKEA, directly across from where the now-rusting and gutted SS United States is docked.

Usually, the ship is ignored by the thousands who zip by on South Columbus Boulevard or I-95. But today, the Stars and Stripes flew proudly from her radar mast.

They came to see the ship floodlit, as well as to watch a screening of the public television documentary SS United States: Lady in Waiting. But above all, they came to hear the formal announcement that the ship had received a reprieve from the scrap heap, in the form of a formidable pledge, from Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest.

The master of ceremonies was Dan McSweeney, Executive Director of the SS United States Conservancy. The National Anthem was sung by members of the Orpheus Club of Philadelphia, and the Color Guard was provided by four soldiers from the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry.

In his remarks, Mayor Michael Nutter said that the SS United States was a great symbol of America that should be saved for future generations. “This is a national treasure, a national landmark,” he said. “This ship must be saved. Let us pledge that we will not allow any tragedy to befall this ship. This is the most important landmark on the water anywhere in the city of Philadelphia. This is not just about the ship … this is part of our national history.”

Lenfest, who donated $5.8 million towards the maintenance and eventual purchase of the ship, then accepted the Conservancy’s National Flagship Champion Award from Conservancy Board President Susan Gibbs.

Lenfest reminded everyone that his contribution was only the first step. It was up to the American people to make the restoration of the SS United States a reality.

“My father was a naval architect,” Lenfest said. “He built the watertight doors that went on this ship, and she is still floating! We have a great opportunity here. We are sitting across as the mayor said from the greatest ocean liner ever built. She’s worth keeping, she’s worth saving.  If you look at her, at least from a distance, she is still the most majestic and most beautiful ship afloat.”

“The Conservancy had a big job ahead.” he continued. “All I did was to create the opportunity and prime the pump so they can go out and raise the money to restore the vessel. We are all behind her, and we all wish the Conservancy great fortune in doing it.”

Thanks to Lenfest, the Conservancy has secured an exclusive purchase offer on the ship from her current owners, Genting Hong Kong Ltd. The formal title transfer will occur when negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency are complete. The SS United States Conservancy’s goal is to transform the ship in a self-sustaining moored attraction.

“So shall we?” Lenfest asked those assembled. “Let’s do it!”

Lenfest was clearly enjoying himself, mingling with the crowd and signing autographs.

Among the guests were Marguerite Lenfest (wife of Gerry Lenfest), Lynne Abraham (former Philadelphia District Attorney), James McDermott (executive director of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority), Bill Walsh (district manager for Congressman Joe Sestak), Anthony Maninno (chief of staff for State Senator Larry Farnese), Joan Aitken (chair of the Philadelphia Design Advocacy Group), and Laura Spina of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.

On behalf of Senator Farnese, Maninno presented the Conservancy with a citation in recognition of its efforts.

At 9 p.m., a recording of the ship’s whistles boomed, and powerful floodlights bathed her funnels, radar mast, and bridge in a golden glow. Scores sat in lawn chairs on the grassy strip between the IKEA parking lot and Columbus Boulevard. Some ran across the street to get a closer look, putting their hands on the chain link fence separating them from the ship. A news chopper circled overhead.

For a brief moment, one could go back to a time when her decks lined with people as she was about to pull away from her pier on her next transatlantic voyage. 

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.  Tentatively titled The Ideal Ship, it will be published by Twelve Books (www.twelvebooks.com) in the summer of 2011.

He can be contacted at sujifusa@planphilly.com

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