Long Reads

How ‘America’s flagship’ ended up decaying outside of an Ikea: the story of the SS United States

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The SS United States has been docked at Pier 82 in Philadelphia since 1996. In its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, the SS United States was the fastest luxury cruise liner. But after being decommissioned in 1969, it has fallen into decay, sitting in a harbor outside of the Philadelphia Ikea while its champions fight to bring it back to life. Julia Hatmaker | jhatmaker@pennlive.com

Time isn’t kind.

It’s relentless. It moves forward and stops for nothing.

The SS United States knows this well.

Once the flagship of America, a symbol of the country’s ingenuity and technological prowess, it now lies rusting. Its helm faces an Ikea parking lot in South Philadelphia rather than the open sea.

This is the ship that people lined eight blocks in New York City to see in 1952 for its maiden voyage. This is the ship that claimed President Harry Truman, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as passengers.

It was glamorous. It was powerful. It was magnificent.

For years, the SS United States was sealed tight in an effort to preserve it in a moment of time. Workers’ items were left onboard, waiting to be picked up on a day that never came.

Decades later, time has done its best to wound the SS United States. Rust creeps up its hull. Moss covers sections of its deck. Its interior frames are laid bare, exposing the skeleton of the ship that once was the jewel of the American maritime experience.

Every day that passes, the SS United States decays more. Time is its enemy. Its champion, the conservancy that is fighting so hard to save it, is powerless to fight against it.

But the conservancy has hope. It’s a dream that one day someone will swoop in and give the ship the monetary boost it needs to regain some of its former glory.

But as time passes, the dream gets harder and harder to realize.

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The SS United States as it arrived in New York City on June 25, 1952 to begin its maiden voyage. (AP photo/File)

The perfect ship

Susan Gibbs is the granddaughter of the SS United States’ creator, William Gibbs. She’s the head of the SS United States Conservancy, which owns the ship and is trying to save it.

“This is just an extraordinarily important expression of American history,” she said, standing on the ship’s deck. “It’s the only great ocean liner we have left afloat.

“It’s America’s flagship, the greatest ship we, as nation, ever produced,” she continued later. “It would be an unbelievable tragedy for us to let this extraordinary historical monument slip through our fingers.”

In 1952, the SS United States was a modern marvel.

Legendary naval architect William Gibbs had built a ship that broke records and captured the country’s imagination. It was the pride and joy of its’ owner, the United States Lines.

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Workers break for lunch from the liner, SS United States at Newport News Shipbuilding, 3/19/1952. Photo provided by the Mariner’s Museum and Park.

At 990 feet long, it would be the tallest building in Pennsylvania if placed upright.

It was not only big, but fast.

The SS United States claimed the prestigious Blue Riband award on its maiden voyage, a prize given to the ship that travelled across the Atlantic the fastest. It was the first U.S. vessel to win the honor in nearly 100 years. The SS United States still holds the record for fastest passenger liner to cross the Atlantic in both directions.

That was thanks to the propulsion system, which was virtually kept a state secret for decades due to the SS United States’ role as a backup troop transport. The system was designed by Elaine Kaplan, one of the few female engineers at the time. It was revolutionary and included the use of both five-blade and four-blade propellers.

Its aluminum body also helped keep it light. About 2,000 tons were used to construct the ship. The aluminum was found in everything from the glamorous funnels (the tallest on a ship at the time) to the cabin keys.

“She’s probably the best technology ever constructed in her time,” said Michael Flynn, vice president of interpretation and visitor experience at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia.

But the perfect ship, in Gibbs’ mind, needed to be more than fast. It needed to be safe.

He boasted that the ship was virtually fireproof and unsinkable and set about doing everything he could to ensure that it would be.

“He took it to an obsessive degree,” Susan Gibbs said. “He was kind of a legend for it.”

The famous quip was that the only wood on the ship was the butcher’s block and the Steinway piano.

The piano, however, was fireproof, as Thomas Steinway, president of the firm, proved to Gibbs. Steinway brought a piano out, doused it with gasoline and lit it on fire, according to Steven Ujifusa’s book “A Man And His Ship.” While the gasoline burned, the piano didn’t. It was only then that Gibbs allowed the pianos onto the ship.

Even today, the SS United States’ safety standards are exceptional. For years, the Safety of Life at Sea standards mandated that every ship be able to stay afloat with as many as two compartments flooded. The United States could stay afloat with five.

The passenger tales

Just before its maiden voyage on July 3, 1952 the ship was opened to the public for one day. Nearly 25,000 people paid the $1 admission fee to see the ship.

It became the preferred method of travel for celebrities. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor regularly traveled on it, and other famous visitors included Prince Rainier of Monaco, Salvador Dali and his pet ocelot, and Sean Connery. Even the Mona Lisa traveled on the ship, en route to an exhibition in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Joe Rota, 83, worked as an elevator operator on the ship (and later as a photographer). He recalled talking to Prince Rainier and Marlon Brando as well as the usual passengers.

“The people that traveled with us, passengers — even today when we have an opportunity to speak to people who made one trip, it was one of the highlights of their lives,” he said.

“It represented all that was beautiful,” said Dr. Harold Goldfarb, 82, who worked as the ship’s surgeon. “When you would get aboard the ship, you would relax elegantly and enjoy the break and the time to get to the old world.”

For some of the passengers, the SS United States was the gateway to a new life.

Heinz Bayer, 78, was one of those passengers.

He emigrated from Germany in 1965, buying a ticket on the SS United States and arriving in New York City with only a few suitcases. Today, he lives in the Poconos.

“It is not fair to say that this is just a ship,” he said. “It is more than a ship. It is for people like me, a way into a new life … and a new world. It becomes like a mother that takes you someplace where you’re safe, and the SS United States had been my mother in regards to that.”

For decades, Bayer has carried with him his passenger list. It never leaves his side.

“I remember every single day the opportunity I had and how I feel the gratitude to the ship and its staff,” he said.

But the heyday of the SS United States would be brief.

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The enclosed first-class promenade deck on the SS United States in 2016. Julia Hatmaker | jhatmaker@pennlive.com

The end of the ocean liner era

Airplanes became the popular mode of transportation to Europe in the 1960s. A plane could get you to your destination in a matter of hours, whereas the SS United States, while fast, would take at least three days.

At the same time, crew unions exerted their power. They refused to let the ship lay off crew members during light seasons. The result was that on some voyages there were 761 passengers and 941 crew members.

It lost $8 million in 1966.

Finally, on the completion of its 400th voyage on Nov. 7, 1969, it went to Newport News Shipyard in Virginia, where it had been made, for a tune-up. The shipyard crews started work on the ship as soon as it came in, before being called off suddenly. The United States Lines had decided to retire the SS United States.

And with that, the SS United States was done. Its 17-year career ended without any bells or whistles – just a whisper and a closed door.

“It’s just like everything else that happens: The train replaces the horse and carriage, the automobile replaces the train and the airplane trumps the ship purely because it was faster,” Flynn said.

The timing was bad for the ship.

“She missed her real era to shine,” Flynn said, elaborating later “If she was just 40-50 years earlier, she’d probably be much more famous than she is today.”

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Cabins on the SS United States. While the interiors of the ship have been gutted, you can still make out where bathrooms would have been. Julia Hatmaker | jhatmaker@pennlive.com

The attempts to save her

Since then, the ship has changed owners multiple times, each with their own dreams for the great ocean liner. All fell through.

As time passed, the liner’s furnishings were sold at auction and its interiors gutted to rid it of asbestos.

The ocean liner seemed destined to become scrap metal in 2010, but at the last minute the SS United States Conservancy came up with the funds to buy it, thanks to a $5.8 million donation by H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, a Philadelphian philanthropist.

The conservancy has hunted for a development partner since then to help turn the ship into a mixed-use space to include restaurants, hotel rooms, a museum or offices.

It costs about $60,000 a month, mostly for docking, maintenance and insurance, to keep the ship going. The conservancy is just focused on keeping the lights on, figuratively speaking.

“Even doing something as logical as painting the funnels so it looks like something is underway … would cost a half a million dollars for all sorts of complex technical reasons,” Susan Gibbs said. “It has been our sense that any meaningful work on the ship can only commence once the ship is brought into dry-dock and the restoration really begins.”

There was hope this year, when Crystal Cruises expressed interest in refurbishing the boat and spent about $1 million on a feasibility study.

The result, however, was grim.

“Unfortunately, the hurdles that would face us when trying to bring a 65-year-old vessel up to modern safety, design and international regulatory compliance have proven just too great to clear in both a technically and commercially responsible manner,” said Crystal President and CEO Edie Rodriguez. The company donated $350,000 to the conservancy instead.

In the past, the SS United States always managed to stay afloat, no matter what sort of financial storm it faced.

Susan Gibbs is hoping that’s true again.

For now, the ship is safe until the beginning of 2017. Beyond that is anyone’s guess.

But Gibb’s isn’t giving up on the ship.

“She’s not done yet.”

To help save the SS United States, donate to the SS United States Conservancy. For more information, visit ssusc.org.

This story featured a promotional video for social media purposes, which you can watch below.

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