In 1964, former SS United States purser Jim Green returned to the ship as a passenger for a West Indies cruise along with his beloved wife Frieda. Here, set to the music of the ship’s own orchestra, is a nostalgic journey back to cruising the past.
Beating the odds, a small group of ship-lovers is finally taking ownership of the object of their affection: the historic ocean liner S.S. United States.
It’s the latest step in the effort to save the down-on-its-luck supership from the scrap heap. On Tuesday, the preservationist group S.S. United States Conservancy will officially become the owner of the Titanic-sized vessel, buying it for $3 million from cruise-line operator NCL Group, according to both parties. The Wall Street Journal reported the planned sale last year.
SS United States is now docked in Philadelphia.
“Now comes the real challenge,” said Dan McSweeney, the conservancy’s executive director. The goal is a “public-private partnership” to find a permanent spot to dock the ship and fill it with hotels, restaurants, classrooms or offices. “We’ve got 650,000 square feet of space,” he said.
For their money, the new owners get a legendary steamship fallen on hard times. Built during the Cold War as an expression of American luxury and industrial prowess, the S.S. United States ferried presidents and royalty during years of trans-Atlantic passenger service in the 1950s and 1960s.
But jet travel ended the golden age of ocean-going passenger service, and the ship was mothballed in the late 1960s, bouncing from owner to owner ever since.
NCL planned to use it for cruises around Hawaii after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks—a time when American travelers were keen to stick close to U.S. waters. But that never happened. In the past year or so, NCL took bids from scrapyards.
The ship today sits rusting in Philadelphia. An NCL spokeswoman said, “We wish [the conservancy] the best in their efforts to preserve this historic ship.”
The conservancy said it had begun talks with municipal officials or developers in Philadelphia, Miami and New York. the ship’s original home port.”We can now take these conversations to the next level, because we finally hold title to the vessel,” said Susan Gibbs, conservancy-board president. She declined to name the potential partners.
The conservancy has also commissioned a report that proposes incorporating the ship into a river-front redevelopment plan in Philadelphia that includes a casino, hotels and restaurants.
The sale was delayed when the Environmental Protection Agency raised questions about toxic PCBs on the liner, common for ships of its era. Those questions had been addressed, an EPA official said in a statement. “It is EPA’s understanding that the parties intend to comply with applicable PCB regulations by full and complete PCB remediation and disposal” before the ship is reused, the agency said.
Time is now of the essence. “We only have the funding for a 20-month stay of execution for the vessel, so we must move quickly,” Ms. Gibbs said. That money, along with the $3 million to buy the ship, came from Gerry Lenfest, a Philadelphia philanthropist .
On Tuesday the group plans to announce the purchase in Philadelphia. That will be followed by a reception across the street from the S.S. United States, in an Ikea cafeteria that offers a good view of the ship they will have just bought.