$5.8 million gift provides ‘Big U’ with a reprieve from the scrap heap

SS United States — which holds the record for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing by a passenger liner — will not be sold for scrap, thanks to a $5.8 million donation by a Philadelphia philanthropist.

The SS United States Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the ship’s preservation, announced the gift on July 1, saying it plans to undertake further fund raising and partnership efforts to preserve the ship as a stationary attraction.

Owned by Norwegian Cruise Line since 2003, SS United States has been sitting at a Philadelphia pier awaiting its fate to be decided. When NCL’s plans to revive the former ocean liner as a cruise ship fell through, the company began considering bids from scrap dealers.  
(Gregory Shutters photo)

The donation, made by H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, represents an 11th-hour reprieve for the ship. Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), which has owned the vessel since 2003, had been trying to sell it for over a year, and had received a bid of $5.9 million from scrap metal dealers. Lenfest, who sold his cable television company, Lenfest Communications, to Comcast in 2000 for $6.7 billion, has made numerous donations to universities and arts organizations. He had made a matching gift of $300,000 to the Conservancy in 2009, but the most recent gift still came as a surprise to the group.

“It was unexpected,” said Susan Gibbs, president of the Conservancy’s board of directors. “I think he felt, like many of us did, that we were on the verge of losing a very important part of our American maritime heritage.”

The gift has enabled the Conservancy to purchase an exclusive option on the vessel through January 2011, although it hopes to finalize the sale as soon as it completes a review of the vessel’s title. The funds will also pay the operation and maintenance of the ship for up to two years.

The organization envisions the ship as a stationary attraction, most likely either in Philadelphia or New York. Gibbs cited an approximate cost of $300 million to convert the vessel to some combination of museum, retail, hospitality and entertainment space. Such a conversion would necessarily involve a public-private partnership; the ship’s eventual resting place would depend on pier space, investment capital and political support.

“It’s not a certainty that the ship is going to stay in Philadelphia,” Gibbs said. “We’re delighted with the interest that has been expressed in Philadelphia.”

Launched in 1952, United States put a Cold War spin on trans-Atlantic opulence. The U.S. Navy underwrote the vessel’s construction cost with the intention of converting her to a troop carrier in the event of another global conflict. “Big U,” as she came to be called, was capable of transporting an entire infantry division of 14,000 troops up to 10,000 miles without resupplying.

However, it was the ship’s speed, more than her strategic value, that earned her a berth in the history books. Big U‘s top speed was classified for many years, but the Navy eventually revealed that she reached 38.32 knots in sea trials. (She was capable of making 20 knots in reverse.) On her maiden voyage, she broke the trans-Atlantic speed record set 14 years earlier by RMS Queen Mary; she broke the westbound record on her return voyage, setting a record of three days, 12 hours and 12 minutes that still stands today.

Shunted into obsolescence by the rise of commercial passenger jets, United States passed through a succession of private owners after her retirement in 1969. NCL purchased her in 2003 with the hope of transporting passengers to Hawaii from the West Coast, but eventually gave up the idea of returning the ship to service.

Constructed to military standards, the ship’s hull is overbuilt and retains 92 percent of its original strength, according to surveys conducted by NCL. Remediation work performed in the early 1990s cleared the ship of asbestos and her interior is stripped and ready for renovation.

“We’ve been given an extraordinary opportunity to make this happen, but we don’t have the investment capital at the ready yet,” said Gibbs. “The clock is ticking.”

Alden Robinson

By Professional Mariner Staff