SOS call for historic ocean liner docked in Philly
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Caretakers for the SS United States, the legendary ocean liner moored on the Delaware River since 1996, are renewing and expanding their emergency distress call for the beleaguered piece of American maritime history.
In an eleventh-hour reprieve that spared the ship a date with the scrap yard, a local philanthropist's $5.8 million gift allowed the SS United States Conservancy to buy it and keep it afloat until November 2012. With that date looming, the nonprofit conservancy launched a "Save the United States" fundraising rally Wednesday to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the ship's maiden voyage on July 3, 1952.
The conservancy has raised about $6 million so far but needs $25 million to restore the exterior and part of the interior to house a museum, said Susan Gibbs, conservancy executive director and the granddaughter of William Francis Gibbs, the ship's Philadelphia-born designer. The goal is to spark interest, raise public awareness and literally get investors on board.
"The SS United States is America's flagship. It symbolizes the very best that this nation has produced," she said. "It is going to once again be an amazing icon for the nation to appreciate and enjoy."
The fundraising campaign includes a new interactive website, www.savetheunitedstates.org, which allows donors to "purchase" a piece of the ship for $1 per square inch for themselves or in honor of someone else. They can choose the section they want to sponsor by scrolling and zooming around a virtual model on the website, "meet" other donors throughout the ship, personalize and upload images and memories of the ship, and share it through social media sites.
The 990-foot-long ocean liner, which transported patrons across the Atlantic with both elegance and muscle, has spent the bulk of its life in a nomadic existence plagued by shifting owners, dashed hopes and close calls with the scrap yard. But even in its humbled state, the ship newspapers once feted as "the greatest shipbuilding effort in the history of this country" and "the most revolutionary modern superliner in the world" still remains an awe-inspiring sight even to those who remember it from its heyday.
"The engineering, the beauty, the service, the safety -- this was the best, the best in the world, none of the ships could compare with it," Joe Rota, who worked on the ship in the 1950s, said during a recent visit aboard the United States. "And it would be an absolute tragedy to lose it."
The $5.8 million donation from cable TV mogul H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, whose naval architect father designed parts of the SS United States, saved the ship from a likely scrapping and allowed the conservancy to buy the ship from Norwegian Cruise Lines in February 2011 and pay for 20 months of docking and related costs. The conservancy's redevelopment arm is exploring potential partnerships with entities in Philadelphia, New York and Miami to refashion the vessel as a stationary entertainment complex with a hotel, theater, restaurants and shopping -- but the clock is winding down along with the money from Lenfest's gift.
"What you see here is kind of discouraging but ... you could scrape this down and you could repaint it, and when we light the lights at night on occasion she's absolutely gorgeous again," Rota said. "And we could have that again. ... This would be an attraction the whole world would want to come and take part in again."
Commissioned as a joint venture between the Navy and ship designer Gibbs & Cox, the $78 million liner's luxury cloaked its military might. Though never called to battle, it could have been converted in a single day to transport 14,000 troops for 10,000 miles without refueling.
Instead it carried more than 1 million passengers across the Atlantic over the course of 400 round trips, among them President John F. Kennedy, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Salvador Dali, Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco, and England's King Edward VIII. In 1968, Bill Clinton traveled tourist-class en route to Oxford University.
The liner's glory days were short-lived as air travel rose in popularity, however, and the United States was taken out of service in 1969.
It changed hands multiple times, from the Navy and on through a series of restoration-minded investors. It was unceremoniously towed from Virginia to Turkey to Ukraine, finally arriving in Philadelphia as a gutted hulk. Another succession of developers and a cruise line failed to return the ship to service as retrofitting costs proved too great.
"It's been 60 years since I first set foot on this ship with my mother ... it's very exciting," said Louise Meiere Dunn, 82, of Stamford, Conn., who stood recently on the promenade where she danced the conga on the maiden voyage, when the United States set a new trans-Atlantic record from New York to England: 3 days, 10 hours, 40 minutes.
The record that still stands for a conventional passenger ocean liner.
"We understood there was going to be some sort of celebration when we were going to break the record," Dunn said. "We went out on deck ... but the weather was so foul we came back here and found it on the promenade deck."
She recalled with a laugh that she and the other young people on board partied until breakfast, which they ate while still in their evening gowns and black tie from the night before. Several weeks later, a friend in India saw her dancing the conga on a movie newsreel.
"I'm hoping that this ship can be revived, repurposed," she said. "It would be wonderful to see this promenade deck being used again -- and having a conga line, maybe."