The race is on to save the SS United States, an historic ocean liner currently docked in disrepair on the Delaware River in South Philadelphia.
“The cost of maintaining the ship – and when I say ‘maintaining,’ I just mean keeping it docked and in-shored and safe and sound – is expensive,” said Susan Gibbs, director of the SS United States Conservancy, which in 2011 purchased the ship. “And of course we don’t want it to sit in its current condition indefinitely because it’s just not the vision.”
The Conservancy’s desired vision encompasses a mixed-use development with a dedicated museum and a combination of retail, dining and lodging.
But the nonprofit is finding that, after the cost of maintenance – estimated to be $1 million annually – it’s difficult to keep the project afloat.
“I think it’s a big ship and a big project, so that’s certainly why it’s challenging,” Gibbs said. “We feel that’s also why it’s one of most, if not the most, extraordinary redevelopment and preservation opportunities in the country right now, because the ship was so iconic – not unlike the Statue of Liberty and these other truly national attractions.”
The Conservancy is rolling out one last fundraising push spearheaded by a five-part documentary, “Made in the United States,” whose online release began last week. The film dovetails with the organization’s social media campaign inviting donors to upload photos and stories to an interactive web blueprint of the ship.
“It’s been so fascinating to see people’s photographs, testimonials and messages, because the ship still really speaks to people,” Gibbs said.
“There’s an incredibly rich taxonomy of people whose lives have been touched by the ship and the campaign is really offering a place for those to be shared and celebrated.”
Gibbs has a very personal connection with the SS United States – her grandfather William Francis Gibbs designed it.
“It really was a lifelong obsession of his, ever since he was a little boy in Philadelphia and saw the launching of a ship in the Cramp Shipyard on the Delaware River when he was 8 years old,” she said.
Gibbs said her grandfather first sketched the United States nearly 40 years before it was actually constructed. “He actually went to Harvard and was kicked out because he spent so much time sketching ships,” she said. “It was a lifelong love affair and the culmination of his career as a self-taught marine engineer and naval architect.”
Where will she end up?
Despite the ship’s now-iconic presence on Philadelphia’s coast, officials with the Conservancy say it’s unlikely to stay in the city once a redevelopment deal is finalized. It was last year being floated among developers for inclusion in New York City’s waterfront revitalization plan Vision 2020.
“We are giving New York a very close look and there’s some strong selling points to New York,” Gibbs said. Preliminary feasibility studies commissioned by the nonprofit have indicated that there is simply not enough capital in Philly to develop or sustain the massive undertaking.
“New York was the ship’s home port during her service career, so there’s a lot of resonance there,” Gibbs said. “And, of course, New York is such a major market, there are many ways the economics could work nicely in New York.”
She added that though the nonprofit is heading up the ship’s museum board, the rest of the project – including its location – is not a done deal.
“In terms of the mixed use development, that’s still being negotiated,” Gibbs said. – so what combination of hotel, retail, events base and some of these other uses that the vessel’s over 500,000 square feet can accommodate – that’s still being played out
History in brief
– The SS United States was constructed in 1952 as a partnership between private shipping company United States Lines and the U.S. Navy.
– Built as a passenger liner that could be quickly and stealthily converted to a wartime troopship, the SS United States smashed transatlantic speed records during its maiden voyage and used more aluminum than any other construction project of the era.
– The vessel was sold to a private company in 1964 and continued its rise to the status of a luxury cruise ship patronized by celebrities and heads of state, including John F. Kennedy, Jr.
– The SS United States was in 1969 taken out of service. The national Maritime Administration auctioned much of its furniture and the liner was in 1996 towed to its current home in South Philadelphia.
By the numbers
$78 million. The ship’s construction cost in 1952.
$1 million. The rough annual cost of maintenance for the now-docked SS United States.
$250 to $300 million. The estimated cost of fully converting the ship into a mixed use development.
$6 million. The reported amount the Conservancy has raised so far toward the ship’s renovation.