© 2024 WHRO Public Media
5200 Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk VA 23508
757.889.9400 | info@whro.org
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic faces eviction from a pier

In 1952, the SS United States won the famed Blue Riband, the prize given to the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic. On the record-setting maiden voyage, the ship went so fast some of the paint on the hull was sheared off by the sea.
Courtesy SS United States Conservancy
In 1952, the SS United States won the famed Blue Riband, the prize given to the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic. On the record-setting maiden voyage, the ship went so fast some of the paint on the hull was sheared off by the sea.

The fastest ocean liner to ever cross the Atlantic — in both directions — has been languishing at a pier in south Philadelphia for more than twenty-five years. However, the days of the rusting SS United States calling at Pier 82 in the City of Brotherly Love are likely numbered. The 990 ft. ship that's bigger than the Titanic is facing eviction.

On her maiden voyage in 1952, the SS United States won the coveted Blue Riband from Great Britain. What came to be called "America's Flagship" crossed the Atlantic in 3 days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes — besting the time set by the RMS Queen Mary by 10 hours. To this day, the SS United States holds the record.

That speed is no accident; the U.S. government helped pay for the ship. If the Cold War had heated up, the vessel could've quickly been converted to a troopship that could carry some 14,000 soldiers 10,000 miles without refueling.

Some of the biggest celebrities of the 1950s and 60s sailed aboard the<em> </em>SS <em>United States, </em>including film icon Marlon Brando and surrealist artist Salvador Dali.
/ Courtesy SS United States Conservancy
/
Courtesy SS United States Conservancy
Some of the biggest celebrities of the 1950s and 60s sailed aboard the SS United States, including film icon Marlon Brando and surrealist artist Salvador Dali.

In spite of the once classified design elements that went into the ship and a who's who of glamorous passengers that included stars and presidents, the vessel's retirement has seen it stare down scrapping a few times.

The latest threat, and potentially most dire, is a lawsuit from Pier 82's landlord.

"The lawsuit was brought by Penn Warehousing to evict the ship and to collect some $700,000 — $800,000 worth of what they allege was back rent," says Warren Jones.

He's a board member of the SS United States Conservancy, the nonprofit that's owned and overseen the vessel since 2011. He also sailed on the ship when he was 7 years old in 1961.

The SS <em>United States</em> has been at Pier 82 in south Philadelphia for more than 25 years The elements have taken a toll on the vessel. The giant ship looms large over south Philly and can be seen from nearby I-95.
/ Matt Guilham
/
Matt Guilham
The SS United States has been at Pier 82 in south Philadelphia for more than 25 years The elements have taken a toll on the vessel. The giant ship looms large over south Philly and can be seen from nearby I-95.

The conservancy claims Penn Warehousing unjustly doubled the rent during the pandemic for keeping the huge ship at Pier 82. The daily cost of mooring the vessel along the Delaware River jumped from $850 to $1,700.

"The rental agreement that they wrote and presented to us had no provision in it for escalating the rent and it even had no time limit on the lease as well," says Jones.

The ship was already at Pier 82 when the conservancy bought the vessel and entered into the agreement more than a decade ago.

Neither Penn Warehousing nor their attorneys responded to requests for comment.

Both sides argued their case before a federal judge, and the fate of the ship now rests in the hands of the court. Even if the conservancy prevails and the vessel can remain at Pier 82, the writing is on the wall.

"The ship needs a new home," says Susan Gibbs, the head of the SS United States Conservancy and the granddaughter of its designer, famed naval architect William Francis Gibbs.

Susan Gibbs is the head of the SS <em>United States</em> Conservancy and granddaughter of the ship's designer William Francis Gibbs. She views the ship as a powerful and unifying symbol. Gibbs fears if the ship is evicted it could be lost forever.
/ Matt Guilham for NPR
/
Matt Guilham for NPR
Susan Gibbs is the head of the SS United States Conservancy and granddaughter of the ship's designer William Francis Gibbs. She views the ship as a powerful and unifying symbol. Gibbs fears if the ship is evicted it could be lost forever.

Standing on the bridge of the mothballed ocean liner, taking in the view of the ship's sleek lines and sharp bow, Gibbs says the vessel's moment has come.

"She's ready to bust a move," Gibbs says. "She's been here long enough; she's ready to go to the next port of call."

While the conservancy has a multi-million dollar redevelopment plan for the ship that would see it return to the base of its transatlantic operations in Manhattan, that next port of call is a big question mark.

"There are a number of different possibilities, and we are open to any of them at this point," says Gibbs. "Time is of the essence."

New York, Florida, even staying in Philly have all been floated as possible options for where the ship may go. The conservancy said it would be open to the prospect of the West Coast if a space that could accommodate the liner could be found.

After decades of exposure to the elements, the SS United States looks every day of her 72 years. Rust has tinted vast swaths of the ship a ruddy hue, and the hull looks scaly and reptilian because of the flaking black paint. The vessel may be lacking cosmetically, but she's still got it where it counts.

"What's encouraging is that despite the peeling paint and the rust that we see as we are walking down the halls of the ship, she is still structurally sound," Gibbs says.

Her fellow conservancy member, Warren Jones, also says that while the ship could use more than a nip and a tuck on the outside, the bones are solid.

"The hull of the ship has been inspected over and over and over again at various points, and all the reports come back and it's in remarkable good shape," says Jones. "You just feel the solid structure of the ship as you walk these decks."

While the interior of the ship was essentially gutted during asbestos removal in the 1990s, the curvy original bar that served up countless martinis and old fashioneds remains intact.
/ Matt Guilham for NPR
/
Matt Guilham for NPR
While the interior of the ship was essentially gutted during asbestos removal in the 1990s, the curvy original bar that served up countless martinis and old fashioneds remains intact.

Although the public hasn't had access to the vessel for ages, the conservancy is hoping the ship's next chapter has it full of life once again. Initially drawn up with New York City in mind, Jones says the redevelopment plan of the ship could be made to fit any port that'll have her. Along with a specialized dock for the old liner, the plan would transform the SS United States itself.

"It includes a refurbishment of the ship, entertainment venues, dining, a thousand-key hotel onboard," says Jones.

All of that, however, is up in the air. If the ship gets evicted, the conservancy believes the vessel could be lost forever. Berths for thousand-foot ocean liners that can't power themselves and have been out of operation since the Nixon administration aren't readily available. So, the conservancy has taken an unprecedented step.

"We have issued an appeal to the president and a number of congressional leaders," says Gibbs. "The time has come. This ship is imperiled, and it's all hands on deck."

The three-page letter addressed to President Biden succinctly lays out the vessel's storied history and the potential for repurposing it. The conservancy is so concerned the end may be near, it would be open to gifting the ship to the government: "The Conservancy is even willing to donate the ship to the National Park Service, the state of Pennsylvania, or other entities in exchange for a viable pier location."

The vessel's champions are clear-eyed that "America's Flagship" doesn't have much time left in Philly. If it's evicted, there's no telling if the next port of call is a safe haven or the scrap heap.

Copyright 2024 WHYY

Matt Guilhem