Hopes for saving the famed ocean liner SS United States have been buoyed by an agreement between its nonprofit owner and a major Long Island development firm that has agreed to try to formulate a plan for reuse of the mothballed vessel.
Uniondale-based developer RXR Realty will work on an adaptive reuse plan and seek a suitable site for the 990-foot ship that set trans-Atlantic speed records on its maiden eastbound and westbound crossings in 1952 but has been deteriorating at a pier in Philadelphia since 1996.
“This is an extraordinarily promising development,” Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy, said in an interview. The organization has been looking for a development partner since it acquired the vessel in 2011.
Neither party would reveal how long the agreement will be in effect. “Over the next several months, RXR Realty will be working to determine the viability of the SS United States re-development and will explore a range of potential locations for the historic vessel,” Gibbs told the group’s members on December 10th.
“In connection with its work, RXR will be paying a substantial portion of the ship’s carrying costs and making other investments during this option period,” added Gibbs, granddaughter of the ship’s designer, the late William Francis Gibbs, a part-time Locust Valley resident. The conservancy pays $60,000 a month for dockage fees and other costs to keep the United States afloat.
RXR Executive Vice President, Seth Pinsky, said in an email that, “the SS United States is an exemplar of America’s proud maritime history. For this reason, we are very excited about the possibility of participating in its rehabilitation.”
Pinsky cautioned that “there is clearly much more work to be done before we are able to say for certain whether this possibility can become a reality and, if so, what form this reality will take.”
In the joint statement issued December 10th, RXR noted “our history of re-purposing and updating some of this country's most historic structures.” These include the Helmsley Building, 75 Rockefeller Plaza and Pier 17 by the South Street Seaport in Manhattan.
Gibbs has said previously that her organization’s first choice for a homeport would be New York, from which the ship originally sailed during its years of trans-Atlantic service.
The conservancy has envisioned the ship serving as a multi-use facility including a museum, events space and a hotel. The organization has acquired thousands of objects originally on the ship or associated with it for the museum.
In 2016, the Conservancy and high-end cruise ship operator Crystal Cruises announced that the company would evaluate buying the ship to return it to passenger service. But a $1-million feasibility study determined there were too many problems to overcome.
The United States, its role superseded by passenger jets, was taken out of service in 1969. The interior of the rusting hull was stripped in 1984.
Before her retirement, the SS United States was the most glamorous and elegant ship in the world. Nicknamed the Big U, she transported four U.S. Presidents, celebrities including Princess Grace of Monaco, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Cary Grant and Coco Channel as well as a million passengers. While the ship captivated travelers with its features and elegance, the ship's origin was equally intriguing. She was designed as part of a top-secret Pentagon program during the Cold War, which stipulated it could be quickly converted from a luxury liner into a naval troopship in the event of a war, carrying 15,000 troops with a 240,000 shaft horsepower propulsion plant capable of traveling 10,000 nautical miles - almost half way around the globe - without re-fueling. During her heyday, the ship was reported to have been capable of speeds of over 44.7 knots, and her steam turbine propulsion system was only slightly slower than the engines on today’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. In 1952, the ship’s maiden voyage, from New York to Southampton, England, was accomplished in only three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes and it still holds the “Blue Riband" record for the fastest transatlantic crossing.
The SS United States was launched for United States Lines at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. The upper portion was built primarily of aluminum to save weight and make the ship fireproof. William Gibbs liked to say the only wood on the ship were pianos and chefs' cutting boards.
When she was taken out of service in 1969, she remained part of the U.S. Navy’s reserve fleet until 1978 when the Navy decided to sell the vessel to a private owner. Since then, the SS United States has passed from owner to owner.
Richard Hadley of Seattle planned to convert the vessel into seagoing time-share condominiums. After his financing collapsed, he had the ship’s interior fittings auctioned off in 1984. Fred Mayer, who bought the ship in 1992, sought to create a running mate for Cunard’s QE2. He had the ship towed to Turkey and then Ukraine for hazardous material removal, and then towed back to Philadelphia in 1996, where she has remained since. Edward Cantor bought the ship with dreams of returning it to seagoing service. The ship was put up for sale after his death in 2002. Norwegian Cruise Line purchased the vessel in 2003 and announced plans to rehabilitate the ship as part of its American-flagged cruise service. The global economic crisis caused these plans to flounder, and the vessel was again listed for sale in 2009.
When NCL failed to receive any offers, the company began looking towards scrapping, leading the SS United States Conservancy group to launch its “Save Our Ship” Campaign, which helped rally public support and raise the funds needed to purchase the ship. In July of 2010, the Conservancy announced that it had received a leadership grant from Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest enabling the ship’s purchase as well as upkeep for 20 months. Ongoing fundraising is kept the ship afloat subsequently.