Northeast Times

She's perfection on the water

— She offered a boat­load of charm, el­eg­ance and speed. The SS United States now graces the wa­ter­front.

Aboard the his­tor­ic SS United States Liner, which was built 60 years ago as a lux­ury pas­sen­ger liner that could be con­ver­ted in­to a mil­it­ary troop car­ri­er if needed. Today, the ship is docked in Phil­adelphia, and ap­pears rusty and an­cient. A non-profit con­servancy group is rais­ing money to turn it in­to a mu­seum and show people how glor­i­ous this ship once was, Fri­day, June 15, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

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Per­haps the SS United States’ greatest flaw was that she had none.

Launched in the early 1950s dur­ing an era of Amer­ic­an in­no­cence and in­genu­ity, the ocean liner didn’t crash and burn on her maid­en voy­age. Rather, she set world re­cords and re­turned stateside a hero.

For 17 en­su­ing years, the ship sym­bol­ized her na­tion’s might and prosper­ity on the world stage while trans­port­ing pas­sen­gers across the At­lantic with un­matched speed, safety and style.

At more than three foot­ball fields in length, the United States burned brightly and boldly, al­beit briefly. Yet she didn’t go down in a bout of hubris, a Ti­tan­ic tragedy that might’ve en­sured her etern­al in­famy.

Her op­er­at­ors simply shut her down, sealed her up and al­lowed her to fade in­to ob­scur­ity.

Now she rests, moored to a pier on the South Phil­adelphia wa­ter­front — paint peel­ing from her hull and majest­ic twin fun­nels, rust coat­ing her  decks — wait­ing for a life­line that may not come.

“It’s sad to see it in the shape it’s in today, but it’s really not in that bad shape,” said Charles An­der­son, the son of one of the ship’s former cap­tains. “I can see it be­ing re­stored.”

To co­in­cide with the 60th an­niversary of the ocean liner’s glor­i­ous maid­en voy­age, the SS United States Con­servancy has launched a new cam­paign to save her from the scrap yard.

The or­gan­iz­a­tion’s lead­ers fig­ure it will cost about $25 mil­lion to re­fur­bish the ex­ter­i­or and de­vel­op a vis­it­or cen­ter on board. A full-scale build-out might cost $250 mil­lion and fea­ture a com­bin­a­tion of uses such as a mu­seum, hotel, res­taur­ant and re­tail shops.

Phil­adelphia phil­an­throp­ist H.F. “Gerry” Len­fest sup­plied mil­lions in seed money, al­low­ing the Con­servancy to buy the United States last year from Nor­we­gi­an Cruise Line, whose plans to re­fit the ship as a Hawaii-based cruis­er nev­er ma­ter­i­al­ized.

Built in New­port News, Va., and op­er­ated out of New York City, the ship was brought to Phil­adelphia 16 years ago for stor­age. She’s moored at Pier 82 just south of Snyder Av­en­ue and is read­ily view­able from Colum­bus Boulevard and In­ter­state 95.

For hun­dreds of thou­sands of pass­ers-by, she has be­come a fa­mil­i­ar land­mark, al­though her im­port­ance may be lost on most of them.

“You’re talk­ing about a ho­ri­zont­al sky­scraper,” said Thomas Basile, a New York-based mar­ket­ing con­sult­ant and Con­servancy spokes­man. “People don’t real­ize how big it is.”

At 990 feet long, she would rise 15 feet above Phil­adelphia’s Com­cast Cen­ter if stood on end and tower 447 feet above Billy Penn’s brim. She would be the 15th tallest build­ing in the na­tion.

At 101 feet wide, she sliced through the ocean like a razor. Her four West­ing­house steam tur­bine en­gines were cap­able of pro­pelling her at speeds in ex­cess of 38 knots or 44 mph. On her maid­en voy­age, she tra­versed the North At­lantic in three days, 10 hours, 40 minutes, smash­ing by more than 10 hours the RMS Queen Mary’s 14-year-old stand­ard for in-ser­vice pas­sen­ger liners.

On the re­turn trip to New York, the United States sailed against the pre­vail­ing ocean cur­rents and ar­rived with­in three days, 12 hours, 12 minutes, es­tab­lish­ing the west­bound re­cord that still stands. In do­ing so, she be­came the first Amer­ic­an-flagged ship in more than a cen­tury to hold the “Blue Rib­and.”

“The maid­en voy­age of this ves­sel was really a tri­umph for the na­tion,” said Susan Gibbs, grand­daugh­ter of the ship’s ar­chi­tect, Wil­li­am Fran­cis Gibbs.

“She really does re­main the most fam­ous ship that didn’t sink,” Susan Gibbs said.

The United States ex­uded fame in her cli­en­tele, too. She could ac­com­mod­ate 1,928 pas­sen­gers, plus 900 crew. The pas­sen­ger logs were a who’s who of 1950s and ’60s icons.

Four U.S. pres­id­ents sailed on her, as did Mar­ilyn Mon­roe, Mar­lon Brando, Walt Dis­ney, Duke El­ling­ton, Judy Gar­land, Eliza­beth Taylor, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, John Wayne, Prince Rain­i­er of Monaco and his bride, Phil­adelphia’s own Prin­cess Grace.

The ship stood for status and em­bod­ied the mod­ern­ist­ic 1950s style, with shiny alu­min­um and non-flam­mable syn­thet­ic fab­rics dom­in­at­ing the d&ea­cute;cor.

“It was very ex­cit­ing to go across on a ship like this. People don’t real­ize (now) be­cause there’s noth­ing left like this in the world,” An­der­son said. “An­ti­cip­a­tion was half the fun. It was a very el­eg­ant way to travel.”

For crew like Joe Rota, the SS United States be­came home. Rota served from 1955 to 1959 as an el­ev­at­or op­er­at­or, bell­boy, waiter and pho­to­graph­er. While most alumni re­call the vivid red fun­nels tower­ing over the pristine white and blue hull, Rota most re­mem­bers the aroma.

“It was the smell of wax,” he said. “They were con­stantly wax­ing and buff­ing the floors. Everything was so im­macu­late. It was like a palace.”

Bell­boys wore blue serge trousers with yel­low and red stripes on each leg, along with vari­ous col­or uni­form coats, de­pend­ing on their as­sign­ment. Their shoes were shined for daily in­spec­tions.

Whenev­er and wherever Rota dis­em­barked from the ship, folks iden­ti­fied him with it.

“The beauty of the ship was al­ways there,” Rota said. “When you were in a for­eign port, people would ask you, ‘Are you on the United States?’ and ‘Is it really as beau­ti­ful as they say it is?’”

Rota and the Con­ser­va­tion group hope to re­store her pub­lic pro­file. Former Phil­adelphia Eagles coach Dick Ver­meil, through his per­son­al friend­ship with Len­fest, has joined the ef­fort, film­ing pub­lic ser­vice an­nounce­ments about the cam­paign.

“This is an im­port­ant part of Amer­ic­an his­tory,” Ver­meil said. “It was the best of the best, built by Amer­ic­ans. And it’s still the fast­est thing that ever crossed the At­lantic.

“There are people who know about it, (but) we have to get it in front of more people. We have to get them to know how far ahead the U.S. was in what we were do­ing at the time.”

On Ju­ly 10, the Con­servancy will launch a newly in­ter­act­ive Web site, www.ssusc.org, where users will be able to spon­sor sec­tions of the ship and share their own pho­tos and memor­ies of her. Last month, the Con­servancy premiered a new doc­u­ment­ary film, SS United States: Made in Amer­ica, about the re­cord-set­ting maid­en voy­age.

In an in­ter­view for the film, le­gendary news broad­caster Wal­ter Cronkite, who sailed on the SS United States, said the ship de­serves a prom­in­ent place in his­tory: “It’s a per­fect sym­bol of the 20th cen­tury. What some would call the Amer­ic­an cen­tury.” ••

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You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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