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 décor.
“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.” ••EndFragment