Video: Sending out an SOS to save the SS UNITED STATES. The historic United States Lines trans-Atlantic liner was designed by a Philadelphia Main Liner.
Criuising The Past thanks Ryan Richards and for this excellent story on the SS UNITED STATES.
By Ryan Richards
(Left) The SS United States as viewed from the second level of the IKEA cafeteria. Photos/video by Ryan Richards
A small sign on a window of the IKEA cafeteria in Philadelphia asks, “Ever wonder about the big ship across the street?”
Well, wonder no more. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the maiden run of the SS United States, an ambitious campaign is under way to preserve and re-purpose the ship that holds the world record for fastest transatlantic voyage.
“We are working hard to save this ship,” said Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy.
Video Plays below:
Her grandfather, William Francis Gibbs (1886-1967), a prominent navel architect and engineer who designed World War II cargo ships including the Liberty ships, designed the SS United States. The son of a financier, he and his brother, Frederic Herbert, grew up in Haverford and long dreamed of one day launching a high-speed, 1,000-foot-long ocean-liner.
(Left: Susan Gibbs on board the SS United States, which was designed by her grandfather, Haverford native William Francis Gibbs.) Today the vessel is rusting at Pier 82 at a ship yard off of Columbus Boulevard. Its massive hull and red, white and blue-painted twin funnels serve as reminder of its once proud maritime history.
Launched in 1952 from Pier 86 in New York, the American-built ocean liner, affectionately dubbed “The Big U,” was as impressive as the Manhattan skyline. Almost as long as the Chrysler building is tall at almost 1,000 feet, the was larger than the Titanic and built to be fast. Her superstructure and much of her fittings and furniture were made of aluminum to lessen the weight.
She cruised at 35.59 knots, more than 44 mph, on her maiden voyage to the United Kingdom in about three days, a world record.
Safety was also a hallmark of the ship. Its hull was designed for stability and strength, and its materials fire-proof or fire-retardant.
Another innovation was the United States’ ability to be converted into a military vessel: the world’s fastest troop carrier. Conceived during the Cold War as part of a top-secret Pentagon project , she had the capability to transport 14,000 troops 10,000 miles without refueling. It was never called into military service, though, according to the conservancy.
Instead she accommodated 1,900 civilian passengers as they cruised the high seas in high luxury during the golden age of transatlantic travel. She served 16 different kinds of champagne and 49 varieties of scotch. The ship’s guests’ lists included a who’s who of the privileged and the powerful, from Hollywood to the White House to titans of industry. Famous celebrity passengers included Marlon Brando, Sean Connery, Gary Cooper, Bob Hope, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne and Walt Disney.
After its glory days ended, in 1969, a tenure that included 800 transatlantic voyages carrying more than one million passenger without a mishap, the SS United States was decommissioned. She was towed to South Philadelphia in 1996 and mothballed. Its contents, including china, art and furniture as well as the ornate fittings, auctioned off in the 1980s and 1990s and are today in museums and private collections. Norwegian Cruise Line took ownership of the vessel at one point with hopes of restoring it to ply the ocean’s waters once again, but the plans proved too costly.
The structure, its opulence just a memory, was considered for scrap metal.
The conservancy came to the rescue and purchased the ship, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, in 2011 for $5.8 million after a financial pledge of support from local philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest. What are now paint-chipped, barren hallways and state rooms, conservancy members see a promising future afloat, one with commercial potential as a permanently moored waterfront attraction in a major city. The conservancy is seeking development proposals that could include space for conventions, hotel rooms, restaurants and shopping.
They also envision a shipboard museum to tell the story of the grand vessel. A 20,000-square-foot museum and theater in the United States’ former observation and tourist lounges will highlight the ship’s technology. Several of the ship’s most prominent public rooms will be recreated. One of the ship’s engine rooms will be restored, too, as part of an “immersive visitor experience.” According to the conservancy, the ship’s high-temperature, high-pressure steam-propulsion system was the most powerful ever installed on a merchant vessel.
In addition, the conservancy is cataloguing the location and ownership of the ship’s former contents.
Last Friday Independence Seaport Museum on Penn’s Landing introduced the conservancy’s new spokesperson, former Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil, to help kickoff a public-service campaign.
The evening also included the premier of a documentary on the ship’s 60th anniversary maiden voyage and a temporary lighting of the ship’s funnels to draw attention to what supporters hope to be a rebirth of “America’s Flagship.”
Conservancy members recently had the opportunity to tour the vessel, which is moored under tight security. It was a homecoming of sorts for Charles B. Anderson, who visited the SS United States as a youngster as his father served as the ship’s captain from 1952 to 1964. Crew member Joe Rota also became reacquainted with an old friend. He joined the staff as a bellboy in the 1950s and worked for a time as the ship’s photographer, snapping the images of passengers at play including such Tinsel-Town notables as Judy Garland, Hopalong Cassidy and Robert Montgomery. Also taking the tour was Carl Wesch, an Ohio resident who travelled on the ship from the United States to South Hampton with his American father and British mother in 1959. He was just 7.
“The only things I remember that really overwhelmed me were her size and power,” he recalled.
“Everything was giant,” he added, “and she still is the biggest ship built in America.”
For information on how to donate to preserve the SS United States, visit the www.ssunitedstatesconservancy.org.