SOS for historic ocean liner United States


Once, it was the fastest and one of the most luxurious ocean liners in the world.

On its maiden voyage in 1952, the United States set a transatlantic speed record -- New York to Bishop Rock, England, in three days, 10 hours, 40 minutes -- eclipsing by 10 hours the mark set by the Queen Mary in 1938.

But for 14 years, the pride of a nation has gone nowhere, rusting away at a pier in South Philadelphia, a fading landmark seemingly destined for one last journey: to the scrap yard.

Its owner, Norwegian Cruise Line, which spends about $700,000 a year to moor and maintain the ship, appears set to pull the plug.

Ah, but what a run. During its glory years, it represented the pinnacle of American Cold War ingenuity and Hollywood glamour.

The ship was larger than the Titanic and fireproof, and could be converted into a vessel for troops within 48 hours, capable of carrying 14,000 soldiers more than 10,000 nautical miles without refueling.

The ship was never called upon to do that. Instead, it entertained an A-list of guests -- John F. Kennedy, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Marlon Brando among them -- who danced in opulent ballrooms and feasted upon Scotch grouse a l’Anglaise, paupiette of Dover sole, and braised smoked ox tongue.

But with the advent of jet travel to Europe, the ship’s fortunes rapidly declined. It was retired in 1969 and changed owners several times.

Since 1996, the vessel has been on life support, docked at Pier 82 across from an Ikea store.

A group of preservationists, the SS United States Conservancy, says that Norwegian Cruise Line has been accepting bids from ship salvage companies and that a deal could be finalized by the end of the month.

“The ship’s situation has been precarious since 1969,” said Susan Gibbs, a member of the conservancy board whose Philadelphia-born grandfather designed the United States. “Now it’s really at the end of the line. It is indeed a dire situation.”

A spokeswoman for NCL America, a subsidiary of the Malaysian-based Genting Group, did not deny that the ship was being shown to scrappers.

“We are, and have been since early last year, accepting bids from suitable buyers. The only contingency is that the buyer must be a U.S. entity,” said spokeswoman AnneMarie Mathews.

In the meantime, the conservancy has launched an SOS campaign to raise both national awareness and funds to buy the ship.

The minimum bid for the ship reportedly dropped from $20 million last year to $1.5 million.

“This is a critical and powerful symbol of our country that cannot be lost,” said Dan McSweeney, the conservancy’s executive director. “The ship is literally irreplaceable.”

McSweeney figures the conservancy needs to raise at least $3 million to buy the vessel and maintain it for the next two years.

The conservancy is also exploring legal means that might prevent the removal of the ship to a company that would destroy it.

The United States is on the national and Pennsylvania registers of historic places, said admiralty attorney Frank DiGiulio, a conservancy member. Although the federal designation provides no protection, Pennsylvania law could give the conservancy the right to ask for a hearing or sue in court.

McSweeney and Gibbs envision a “public-private partnership” that would repurpose the United States into a floating hotel, convention center or casino.

The Rotterdam, launched in 1958, was restored and opened as a hotel and museum last month in the Netherlands.

The outlook for the United States, however, might not be as rosy. A previous owner auctioned off most of its fittings, and the ship was gutted in 1994 to remove asbestos.

“Realistically, the ship has no commercial value other than as scrap,” said Tim Colton, president of Maritime Business Strategies, a Florida-based firm.

“It would be nice to see her converted to a hospital ship, or a hotel, like the Queen Mary, or preserved as a museum,” Colton said, “but if it hasn’t happened by now, it’s not going to happen.”

Still, the members of the SS United States Conservancy remain optimistic.

“We know our vision exists within the realm of possibility,” McSweeney said. “We just need some time and money to kick-start the project.”

Wood writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer.