SS United States

Written by  //  July 17, 2014  //  Transportation, U.S.  //  No comments

SS United StatesKeeping a Historic Ship Afloat

Once upon a time, it carried princes and potentates across the Atlantic in high style and at great speed.
Then it was towed ignominiously to Ukraine where the partitions and bulkheads that once divided luxurious cabins and glittering ballrooms were torn out to remove acres of asbestos.
And since 1996, the steamship United States [SS United States] has been tied to a Delaware River pier beside a South Philadelphia shopping mall, while chunks of paint peel off its black hull and red-and-white funnels.
Now, the 990-foot-long ocean liner that plied the Atlantic from 1952 until 1969 is the focus of what its financially struggling owner, the SS United States Conservancy, says is a final effort to save it from the scrap yard.
Saying the ship could be only months away from being broken up, the conservancy is in talks with three developers about its potential to become a hotel, museum, shopping and restaurant mall, entertainment complex, conference center, educational facility, or some combination of all options for reuse.
Conservancy officials say the ship has about 500,000 square feet of usable space that represents both a business opportunity and a means of rescuing the historic vessel, 45 years after losing its trans-Atlantic market to commercial aviation.
Scrapping the ship would destroy a piece of American social history and an engineering landmark that still holds the record for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing by an ocean liner, said Susan L. Gibbs, executive director of the conservancy and granddaughter of the ship’s designer, William Francis Gibbs.
“There is no other American ocean liner left,” she said in an interview. “This is the last one.”
Ms. Gibbs likened the ship to national icons like the Liberty Bell or the Chrysler Building, but said it had somehow failed to seize the public imagination, despite its presence on the National Register of Historic Places.
Henry Goldsmith, who sailed on the ship in 1952 when he was 11 years old, and then again in 1958, said he had given money to the conservancy to help keep the ship afloat.
Mr. Goldsmith, a retired construction manager, recalled the high standard of service, food and entertainment for first-class passengers, who saw first-run movies and could listen to several orchestras. He said that he and his brother were required to wear suits and ties at dinner, and passengers dressed smartly even when strolling the decks. “There were no shorts, and no baseball caps,” he said.
The ship, which on its maiden voyage in July 1952 set the record of three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes for an eastbound crossing of the Atlantic at an average speed of 44 miles per hour, was built for speed because it was meant to be a troop carrier if needed. The Pentagon paid two-thirds of its $78 million construction cost.
The high standards of its construction have ensured its structural viability, said Dan McSweeney, managing director of the SS United States Redevelopment Project. He said tests on the hull indicated that its steel retained 92 percent of its integrity.
Redevelopment is expected to cost $170 million to $300 million, depending on the combination of uses, and “seed capital” of about $15 million will be needed for an initial phase of the project, Mr. McSweeney said. Putting the ship back into the cruise market could cost as much as $1 billion, which is too expensive to contemplate, he added.
He declined to identify the potential developers but said all would move the ship to New York, its former home port, where its commercial potential would be most likely to be realized.
Mr. McSweeney said that the conservancy — which bought the ship from Norwegian Cruise Line for $3 million in 2011 — also considered locating the ship in Miami, Baltimore, Boston and Philadelphia and other cities but that none matched New York.
The ship’s future may have parallels with the Rotterdam, another liner that sailed the Atlantic for Holland America Line from 1959 until 1997, and is now a mixed-used center in its home port.
After leaving service as a liner, the Rotterdam was bought by a Dutch government-backed company for 250 million euros and converted into spaces for businesses.
Since 2010, it has been occupied by shops and restaurants, a theater, a meeting center and a hotel, which together attract about 500,000 visitors a year, according to Casper van Hooren, a former investor in the project and now an adviser to the SS United States Conservancy.
Mr. van Hooren said the Rotterdam’s businesses over all are profitable, and he predicted that the liner United States would succeed as a result of New York’s many tourists.
The ship may move to a location in Brooklyn within four to six months if negotiations with the conservancy succeed, according to a person with knowledge of the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations are continuing. The person said he was optimistic that a deal would be done, and that the ship would be reborn as a commercial and cultural center.
While the conservancy has considered big-city locations, another team of developers wants to move the ship to Chester, Pa., a city of about 33,000 people south of Philadelphia. There, the vessel would become a hotel for a casino and could also include restaurants, shops and a museum.
Joe Henwood, a former manufacturer who heads a development team called the Binnacle Group, said the ship’s presence in Chester would provide an economic lift for a city with high rates of poverty and crime.
Mr. Henwood said he had six to 10 “very, very serious” investors who are ready to back the project, which he estimated would cost $300 million to $400 million. But he said it was uncertain whether the conservancy was willing to sell, or at what price.
Mr. Henwood criticized the conservancy’s plan to move the ship to New York, saying the city’s high costs would undermine the project’s viability. He also said it was wasting millions of its supporters’ dollars, and violating its role as custodian of the vessel by selling parts of the interior to meet operating expenses.
He said he planned to wait until the conservancy’s redevelopment plans failed, then he would consider buying the ship from a scrap yard before it was cut up.
Ms. Gibbs defended the group’s plan. “The size, density and diversity of the market in New York is significantly more attractive and can generate the highest revenue for investors,” she said.
She also said 82 percent of the conservancy’s budget went to costs that include pier rental, maintenance and insurance. She added that the group had generated income by selling metal from some areas of the ship that were not historically significant.
Simply keeping the ship tied up in Philadelphia costs at least $60,000 a month, and that has drained the conservancy’s resources to the point where redevelopment is the only option, Ms. Gibbs said. Despite the ship’s historic listing, the conservancy receives no government funding, she said.
In June, the group was thrown a financial lifeline by Jim Pollin, a former cruise industry executive, who donated $120,000 to prevent the conservancy from scrapping one of the ship’s propellers and pledged $100,000 in matching contributions.
But the ship’s survival without redevelopment is still only measured in “months,” Ms. Gibbs said.
Inside the ship, cabins once occupied by notable figures such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Harry Truman and Rita Hayworth are now marked by low dividers in the steel floor, while the ballroom where Duke Ellington once played for first-class passengers in tuxedos and ball gowns is a dimly lit shell overhung with disconnected pipes and wiring.

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