armchair cultural observation since 1995

Trying to Save the United States


If you’ve ever been to the IKEA in South Philly or looked to the north while crossing the Walt Whitman Bridge, you’ve seen the United States, or what’s left of the luxury ocean liner built in 1952 and once called “the greatest ship in the world.”

The SS United States has been docked on the Delaware River in Philadelphia since 1996, quietly rusting away as plans to redevelop the ship that set a transatlantic speed record on its maiden voyage have stalled. Destined for the scrap heap, a conservancy group committed to preserving the grand ocean liner is giving one last go to try and raise the funds needed to make restoration and redevelopment possible.

ss_united_states_1956One problem facing the SS United States Conservancy, which purchased the ship in 2011, is the cost of maintenance, which is estimated at $1 million a year just to keep the 990-foot ship from meeting the fate of so many other luxury ocean liners from this bygone era.

“This is the most famous ship that didn’t sink,” Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy and granddaughter of the ship’s designer, said in an interview with CBS News. “We all know the Titanic and this spectacular, maiden voyage catastrophe. This ship is famous for many of us, precisely because she did her job.”

For size reference, the RMS Titanic was almost 50 feet shorter than the United States despite having a larger passenger capacity. A restored United States would undoubtedly trump any exhibit or re-creation of the Titanic (like the one in Branson, Missouri) for giving visitors a feel for what it would have been like to travel the Atlantic in a luxury ocean liner. It would also be a lot less depressing to look at than the ship is now, a shell of its former self awaiting its fate in southern Philadelphia.

Selling individual donors on the nostalgia of the ship that once was hasn’t been hard, but to date not significant enough to move conservation efforts forward. Some recent media attention might help. CBS Sunday Morning ran a feature on the ship and the conservation efforts on Sunday and the conservancy is releasing a five-part documentary online (part 1 was released on their YouTube account earlier this month).

If saved, plans for the ship include a museum, hotel and conference center most likely in New York City, where it was docked until 1969, the year the jet travel age forced her into retirement. The ship’s fittings and furniture were auctioned off in 1984.

The ship was sold off to various owners and stripped of its contents, but still with the efforts of the conservancy added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. The conservancy assumed ownership of the ship in 2011 after paying a reported $3 million to Norwegian Cruise Lines despite scrap offers reportedly approaching $6 million.

Adding to the ship’s storied history are its brushes with popular culture. Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and artist Salvador Dali were all passengers during its sailing days and film credits include models that appeared in 2012 and The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep and actual footage of the ship that appeared in the opening scene of West Side Story and in movies like Bon Voyage, Baby Mama, Munster, Go Home! and Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. The rusting ship most recently provided a backdrop for a scene in the movie Dead Man Down, which releases in March.

To support efforts to save the United States, visit

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