Supporters of the SS United States have struck a preliminary deal “to protect and repurpose” the Newport News-built ocean liner, a monument to a bygone era seeking new life as a modern waterfront attraction.
Details were scarce Monday in an announcement from the SS United States Conservancy, the nonprofit group that owns the ship. However, it was clear more work remains for it to be saved.
Negotiations have been ongoing, and “the project remains in an early and delicate phase,” said Executive Director Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of ship designer William Francis Gibbs.
Here’s some fun 8mm home movies dated 1960 showing the docks at Southampton (or is that Bremerhaven?) and Le Havre as well as shots aboard the ship. Notice in the last shot on the enclosed promenade that the woman is walking against rough seas! Music is by the Melachrino Orchestra, a little vintage ditty entitled “Gay Romance.”
The talks involve unnamed partners. In July, The New York Times reported Brooklyn and Manhattan were potential sites, but the release did not mention a potential location.
“Because negotiations are advancing on a confidential basis, we are unable to offer further specifics at this time,” Gibbs said. “We will share information as soon as we possibly can.”
The ship, which shattered trans-Atlantic speed records in its maiden voyage in 1952, represented the work of 3,100 employees at Newport News Shipbuilding, the fathers and grandfathers of today’s workforce that builds nuclear-powered warships for the U.S. Navy.
In its heyday, the SS United States ferried the likes of Charlton Heston, Marilyn Monroe and several U.S. presidents across the ocean at top speed. A massive ship — 100 feet longer than Titanic — it moved at what was then a blistering pace, besting speed records by hours.
Docked today in Philadelphia, the ship is clearly showing signs of decay. However, supporters say its sturdy construction would lend itself to being transformed into a 21st century pier-side complex that could include retail space, restaurants, a museum and entertainment venues.
Its keel was laid on Feb. 8, 1950. The innovative William Francis Gibbs designed a low and sleek superstructure built entirely of aluminum. He forbid the use of wood in the construction process because he wanted it to be fireproof. He made an exception for the ship’s grand pianos, built from a fire-resistant mahogany. Obsessed with detail, he doused one with gasoline and set a match to it. The piano did not burn.
Monday’s announcement did not offer any hints as to what was being planned. Thomas Basile, a conservancy spokesman, said he had nothing to add beyond the release.
Gibbs said the conservancy would continue planning for an onboard museum and educational center while building its historical archives.
“Many challenges must still be overcome,” she said. “However, we are fortunate that our new partners are very well equipped to handle this unique project’s scope and scale, and the conservancy looks forward to working closely with them in the months to come.”
In late September, the conservancy announced an 11th-hour bid to raise money. Gibbs said the ship’s fate would be decided by the start of October. But that deadline came and went without word — until Monday.
“The conservancy views this as a very positive development which, while still in its initial stages, gives us renewed hope that we will save the United States,” Gibbs said.
Roland Lewis, president of the New York Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, said in September that he supported bringing the ship to the Big Apple. He could not be reached for comment Monday.
The conservancy spends $60,000 a month to pay for docking, insurance and maintenance.
While supporters continue pursuing a deal, “the conservancy will receive financial support to cover the vessel’s core carrying costs for at least an additional three months,” Gibbs said.
History of the SS United States…
Statement from the US LINES Conservancy…
We are very pleased to confirm that we have now entered into a preliminary agreement in support of the redevelopment of the SS United States. Negotiations have been underway for some time, and planning will continue with a variety of stakeholders. While further due diligence is conducted, the Conservancy will receive financial support to cover the vessel’s core carrying costs for at least an additional three months.
The project remains at an early and delicate phase, but we wanted to update our supporters about this encouraging development. As you can appreciate, the ship’s potential redevelopment represents a multifaceted engineering, real estate, and curatorial undertaking that will take considerable time to advance. Many challenges must still be overcome. However, we are fortunate that our new partners are very well equipped to handle this unique project’s scope and scale, and the Conservancy looks forward to working closely with them in the months to come.
Because negotiations are advancing on a confidential basis, we are unable to offer further specifics at this time. We will share additional information as soon as we possibly can. Again, the Conservancy views this as a very positive development which, while still in its initial stages, gives us renewed hope that we can, at long last, Save the United States.
We have reached this moment because so many of you have helped us. You are the real heroes of this effort. We are particularly grateful to Gerry Lenfest, whose transformative contributions enabled the Conservancy to take title to the SS United States in 2011, and who has been a steadfast supporter of our efforts. We also extend our heartfelt gratitude to Jim Pollin. Without his leadership gift and challenge grant to the Conservancy last summer – and without such a generous response from far and wide to Jim’s call – we would never have achieved this milestone.
While the ship is safe for the moment, this achievement doesn’t mean our work is done. The Conservancy continues to plan our ship-board museum and educational center, build our archival and curatorial collections, document and disseminate the ship’s historic importance, plan for contingencies, and work together with our new redevelopment partners to prepare the SS United States for her voyage to her next port of call.
Again, we can’t thank you enough for joining us on this journey and for helping us reach this point. We will honor your commitment by continuing to work tirelessly to ensure that America’s Flagship endures and inspires for generations to come.W