Preservation group acquires SS United States from cruise line to save ship from scrap yard

The historic SS United States, the world record holder for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing by a passenger liner, has officially begun its transition from powerful sea vessel to national landmark.

Ownership of the once-luxurious liner, berthed in Philadelphia for almost 15 years, was transferred to the SS United States Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to its preservation and committed to its repurposing as an entertainment vehicle.

"We received a stay of execution and have 20 months to put something together," said Susan Gibbs, president of the conservancy's board of directors. "It's game on, and we have a lot of work to do. We're elated. Nine months ago, the ship was heading straight to the scrap yard."

SS United States during builder's trials in June 1952, just days before it set the trans-Atlantic speed record. (Photo courtesy SS United States Conservancy/Mark Perry Collection)

The conservancy purchased the ship from Norwegian Cruise Line for $3 million. NCL spent more than a year fielding bids. Realizing the ship's place in history, the cruise line accepted less than some scrap metal dealers had offered.

The money comes out of a $5.8 million donation from philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest. The balance of that pledge will be used toward restoration efforts that include addressing environmental concerns.

The conservancy plans to undertake further fund-raising. Gibbs estimated that refurbishing costs could reach hundreds of millions of dollars to transform the vessel to a combination of museum exhibits, retail shops, restaurants and entertainment space.

Such a task must incorporate a public-private partnership, and the ship's eventual permanent location depends on pier space, investment capital and political support. Organizations in Philadelphia, New York and Miami have expressed interest.

The legendary ocean liner's luxurious Navajo Lounge on the first-class promenade deck. (Photo courtesy SS United States Conservancy/Mark Perry Collection)

"The vision is for this ship to become a stationary destination in a harbor-front setting," Gibbs said. "We need to push on the gas pedal so the plan becomes real."

The conservancy launched a $1 million fund-raising campaign that focuses on preservation and the development of a maritime museum on board the vessel. It intends to preserve the remaining original features. Multiple owners had sold off furniture and stripped off fittings, so some iconic features must be recreated.

The conservancy plans to work with collectors and museums that have stockpiled some items, and will seek long-term loans or donations. Luckily, the ship's legendary engines — its claim to fame — remain intact.

"The power plant was forerunner for the new aircraft carrier class at the time," said Arthur Taddei, 84, who worked in the front engine room for the 1952 maiden voyage. "It was the fastest ship, and represented breakthrough technology in steam power plants."

Launched during the Korean War, "Big U" worked tirelessly for 17 years, before the advent of jet travel to Europe led to its retirement. Taken out of service in 1969, the ship changed owners several times. It has been berthed in South Philadelphia since 1996. NCL had owned SS United States since 2003.

Other famous ocean liners have been transformed into tourist destinations. RMS Queen Mary serves as a floating hotel in Long Beach, Calif. SS Rotterdam, launched in 1958, is a hotel and museum in the Netherlands. A plan is underway to transform Queen Elizabeth 2 into a luxury hotel in Dubai.

Big U's top speed was 38.32 knots in sea trials. On its maiden voyage, it broke a trans-Atlantic record set 14 years earlier by RMS Queen Mary, and then claimed the westbound record on the return voyage, at three days, 12 hours, 12 minutes.

"After we came into New York Harbor, all these ships were following us," Taddei said. "There was a parade of all the tugboats and visiting yachts. It was a great experience. It was one of the great experiences of my life. I'd like to see it saved. It's a national monument to the country's technology."

By Professional Mariner Staff