Search begins for SS United States memorabilia

The gutted ship that has been moored for years in South Philadelphia is looking for its guts.

The latest effort to preserve the legacy of the SS United States is to track the whereabouts of the bells and whistles, the fixtures and furniture that had been stripped out of the historic cruise ship.

The massive ship that set a record for crossing the Atlantic has been on the chopping blocks for decades. Every time a potential scrapper towed it to a new port, things went missing.

“A long dotage, really,” said SS United States Conservancy president Susan Gibbs. “So as the ship was transferred to a succession of different owners, different depredations were inflicted upon her. From the auctioning of some of her interior furnishings, to the removal of asbestos and other components that could be sold for scrap metal overseas.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The final blow was dealt in 1984, when the lion’s share of removable material was sold at auction. The huge size of the auction — one million objects in 3,500 lots — attracted thousands of naval enthusiasts, like Dr. Sarah Forbes of North Carolina.

“She purchased stuff by the truckload and ended up founding a restaurant in North Carolina,” said Gibbs. “Literally every single item was from the SS United States — from the legendary kidney-shaped bars to the towel racks to the stair rails, chairs, dishes, it was really something.”

That restaurant has since closed. Dr. Forbes died in a car crash, and the building was intentionally burned to the ground for fire-department training. The ship items were transferred to the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

That’s just one example of the kind of twisted path these artifacts took.

The Conservancy is looking for a developer to turn the SS United States into something economically viable, which would include an museum comprising all that stuff. So it wants to get as much of it back as possible.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal