SS United States now in grave peril

March 3, 2010

By Steven B. Ujifusa
For PlanPhilly

The owners of the SS United States are now accepting scrappers’ bids for the famous ocean liner. Norwegian Cruise Lines, which is owned by Genting Hong Kong, will allow scrap merchants to survey the ship over the next few weeks. The fastest and arguably most beautiful transatlantic liner ever built – whose faded red, white, and blue funnels have become part of the Philadelphia landscape – has been moored at Pier 82 in South Philadelphia since 1996.

Norwegian Cruise Lines purchased the United States in 2003 with the intention of restoring her as a cruise ship.  In February 2009, as a result of the souring economy, NCL announced that it was abandoning these plans and that they were putting the ship up for sale. Originally, the terms of sale stated that she could not be sold to a non-U.S. entity or for scrap. Now it appears that the non-scrapping provision has been removed, and that scrap merchants are being allowed to make bids on the ship.

NCL’s main motivation for selling the ship is to unburden itself of the berthing and maintenance fees, which run upwards of $800,000 per year. The current scrap market price of the liner is estimated to about $2 million.

In the meantime, the SS United States Conservancy is launching an all-out fundraising and awareness campaign to save the ship from the scrappers. Norwegian Cruise Line offered the Conservancy the opportunity to purchase the ship in 2009, but the nonprofit organization was not in a financial position to accept the challenge at that time.  The Conservancy has since launched a “plank owner” program in which ordinary citizens can make a donation to raise money to alleviate the docking fees and develop a viable business plan for her as a stationary, floating attraction, either in New York or Philadelphia.  The Conservancy’s eventual goal is to be part of a public-private partnership that will renovate and operate the ship.

It’s an ambitious and expensive vision. “The Conservancy’s Save Our Ship campaign shows the groundswell of public support for the SS United States we’ve seen throughout the nation,” said Conservancy Board President Susan Gibbs, whose grandfather, William Francis Gibbs, designed the vessel.  “We’re modeling this campaign on the public subscription which saved the USS Constitution back in the 1920s. The power and symbolism of this ship strikes a real chord.  The nation has faced real challenges in recent years.  Here is a patriotic project that all Americans can embrace.”

Fans of the “Big U” feel that this not just about saving a ship, but saving an irreplaceable piece of American history. “This is both a patriotic and a practical effort,” said Conservancy Executive Director Dan McSweeney, whose father emigrated from Scotland to America to serve as a crew member aboard the vessel. “We’re absolutely committed to saving one of the most important symbols of America in the 20th century, but we’re also talking about creating hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs when this ship is refurbished and becomes a stationary attraction in a large U.S. city.  We must save this irreplaceable American icon and continue the process of establishing a public-private partnership to re-purpose her.”

The ship has attracted a lot of interest recently as a possible historic attraction along a revitalized Delaware waterfront. Members of the Conservancy met with Thomas Corcoran of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation and Alan Greenberger of the City Planning Commission last October to discuss possible uses and locations for the ship. The restoration of the ship as a waterfront attraction has been endorsed by City Council President Anna Verna. Last December,  First District Councilman Frank DiCicco sponsored a resolution that recognized the history of the SS United States and supported its preservation in Philadelphia. “A rehabilitated SS United States would be an exciting addition to the Delaware River that could be successful tourist attraction,” the resolution stated, and that “the refit would create hundreds of jobs for a number of skilled laborers.”

At the federal level, the preservation of the ship has also been endorsed by Congressman Joe Sestak, a retired admiral and Democratic senatorial candidate.

Last year, the plight of the United States made headlines in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. The Conservancy scored a major coup in July 2009 when it received a $300,000 matching grant from philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest.

Thomas Watkins, a retired Pennsylvania state judge and friend of Lenfest, was instrumental in securing the grant, and is outraged at the current situation.

“The sale for scrap of an irreplaceable national icon that bears our country’s name by a Chinese-based company is a metaphor for the state our country is in right now,” said Watkins. We are already in hock to the Chinese as a nation. What’s next? The Statue of Liberty? The Alamo?  The Golden Gate Bridge?”

For its part, Norwegian Cruise Lines released a press statement on Wednesday evening.  “We have continued discussions with the SS United States Conservancy,” the release said in part, “but to date, they have not made an offer to purchase the ship.  There are significant costs, approximately $800,000 annually, associated with maintaining and berthing the vessel.  Therefore, we continue to seek alternative arrangements with the intent of selling the vessel to a suitable buyer.”

Naturally, there has been discussion in the design and planning community about the ship as a creative solution to the casino controversy in South Philadelphia. In his January 25 article in Philadelphia Weekly, Brendan Skwire wrote that since, “it looks like the state is determined to shove casinos down our throats … I say make lemonade from lemons. Sell the ship to Foxwoods and open it as a casino!” And now Steve Wynn has entered the picture.  It is also estimated that her lower decks could accommodate 200 parking spaces.

When asked about the possibility of the ship as a casino, the Conservancy stated that it has an open mind for financially viable ways to save the ship from destruction. “We are open to the idea of the ship as a casino if it was a way to save her,” said Dan McSweeney of the Conservancy, “but it would have to be part of a larger complex that would include a museum and cultural attractions.”

Joanne Aitkin, an architect at Kieran Timberlake and chair of the Design Advocacy Group (DAG), thinks that the use of the ship partially as a casino is a good idea. “The ship as a casino seems like a perfect fit to me,” Aitken wrote in an email. “Exchanging a big box on the waterfront for a cool ship – what’s to decide?  Seems like it would be a huge draw.”

George Claflen Jr., another prominent architect and fellow member of DAG, feels that the ship could be restored incrementally, and that the actual cost of saving her in the short term is quite small.  “Steve Wynn has been talking about building a ‘cute casino,’” Claflen said in a phone interview. “The SS United States could be a landmark casino. It can be saved and developed incrementally. I can envision a casino on the upper decks, lower decks as open space for future expansion, and then the engine/boiler spaces can be stabilized as a ruin like Eastern State Penitentiary.”

“I’m very distressed about where things are with the ship,” Claflen continued. “The potential has been in Philadelphia’s face for 15 years, and just seeing that beautiful ship towering above our city should be a reminder that we do not want to lose it.  This is too dramatic an opportunity to pass up for the Delaware River revitalization.”


Completed in 1952, the SS United States still holds the Blue Riband of the Atlantic for making the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean: 3 days, 10 hours, 40 minutes at an average speed of 35.59 knots, or about 40 land miles per hour. From 1952 to 1969, the “Big U” was the most famous ocean liner in the world, a favorite of the rich and famous as well as ordinary tourists and immigrants.

She counted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, and Princess Grace of Monaco among her first class passengers. Yet she was also a secret weapon in the Cold War, as she could be converted within 48 hours into a 15,000 soldier troopship, and could steam 10,000 miles around the world at 30 knots without refueling.  Her hull and engine designs were classified military secrets. Most importantly, she was a symbol of the optimism and exuberance of the 1950s post-World War II era, when America was at the peak of its industrial might.

Her construction was the lifelong dream of Philadelphia native William Francis Gibbs (1886-1967), America’s preeminent naval architect who had one dream: to create the fastest, safest, most beautiful ocean liner in the world. An eccentric, driven patrician, Gibbs felt that his ship was blessed with what he called “the power of survival,” and that his design team “knew that they were trying for the greatest ship in the world,” he said, “and that they were doing it as trustees for the citizens of the United States…”

The United States was the crowning achievement of Gibbs’s career. In addition to passenger liners, his firm of Gibbs & Cox also designed 70 percent of all the naval vessels constructed during World War II—about 5,000 ships in all.  Perhaps Gibbs’s most famous contribution was the mass-produced Liberty ship. FDR’s Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal was one of many admirers who felt that Gibbs’s contributions to the war at sea were essential to final victory.

For Conservancy Board President Susan Gibbs, the fact that ship now sits forgotten in the city of her grandfather’s birth is a strange historical irony. “It is so poignant that my grandfather first dreamed of designing big ships when he was a Philadelphia boy and would watch the action at shipyards along the Delaware River.  And now his dream ship is languishing, forgotten by the nation she so proudly served.  There must be a reason why this ship is still with us, after so much neglect and after so many years.  It must be because we still have a chance to save her.”


Steven Ujifusa is a board member of the SS United States Conservancy, a national nonprofit dedicated to saving the great ship and preserving her historical legacy.  He is currently working on a general interest book on the SS United States and the life of her designer William Francis Gibbs. The book will be published by Twelve Books ( in early 2011.  To learn more about the book and the SS United States, visit


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