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Anchored: Will Philly be stuck with the SS United States forever?

Anchored: Will Philly be stuck with the SS United States forever?

The former American luxury liner was supposed to be docked In Philadelphia for 21 days; it’s been almost 21 years.


Is time running out for the famous ocean liner?

  • The SS United States is a luxury passenger liner built in 1952 for United States Lines. It was designed by American naval architect William Francis Gibbs to capture the trans-Atlantic speed record.
  • Built at a cost of $79.4 million ($733 million in today’s dollars) the ship is the largest ocean liner constructed entirely in the US and the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic in either direction. Even in her retirement, she retains the Blue Riband, the accolade given to the passenger liner crossing the Atlantic Ocean in regular service with the highest speed.
  • Her construction was subsidized by the US government since she was designed to allow conversion to a troopship should the need arise. Thes SS United States operated uninterrupted in transatlantic passenger service until 1969.
  • Since 1996 she has been docked at Pier 82 on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.


Is the SS United States ready to be scrapped?

Pennsylvania Congressman Bob Brady needed to vote soon, but he hung back in his Washington, D.C. office for a few minutes longer to talk on the phone because the subject is South Philly — precisely the hulking monster of an old passenger ship planted in the Delaware River across from IKEA and Longhorn Steakhouse.

“What the hell’s going on with that thing?” Brady asked.

It’s the perfect question: What the hell is going on with the SS United States?


The SS United States arrives in New York on its maiden voyage in 1952.

If you don’t know the SS United States by name, you know it by sight. The ship is so tall it has its own skyline. The ship is so dilapidated it has its own overused, albeit cool, word to describe the situation. The ship is mothballing. Or the ship is mothballed.

Media have been all over the SS United States for years (we included). The Washington Post gave the ship #longform attention in 2014. The New York Times has written about it four times in the last three years. These articles and the dozens to hundreds of others bring up the ship’s plight and allude to some grand future, where the ship becomes an entertainment center, likely in New York, relieving Philly of its “giant ocean liner rusting in a harbor near a bunch of strip clubs” duties.


But will that ever happen? The SS United States was initially supposed to be in Philadelphia for 21 days, according to media reports from 1996. Days. We are now in the 21st year it has been docked on the Delaware, and there’s seemingly no end in sight. Probably because there is no end in sight, according to developers who can’t imagine any use that would bring a return on investment for something so large, so old and so expensive.


(Left) Colin Farrell heads down rusting First Class promenade of the SS UNITED STATES; (Right) The First Class promenade deck during the heyday of trans-Atlantic travel aboard the SS UNITED STATES… when First Class passengers enjoyed early morning bullion and afternoon tea while watching the Atlantic on their way to and from Europe in only 4 days at sea.


There is no template with the SS United States. The number of times old ocean liners has been redeveloped can be counted on one hand, the most prominent example being the Queen Mary in Los Angeles. It made its last trip in 1967 and the process of repurposing it into a museum/hotel/restaurant space began immediately. When it opened in 1971, the ship was widely known, contained many of its original flourishes and had not decayed over the years.

Still, for decades, ownership of the Queen Mary was passed from company to company, each having little, if any, financial success. The latest owners, as of last year, planned to spend about $15 million more on the ship and $250 million to redevelop the parking-lot-laden area around it.


SS United States developers would be gambling on 48 years of rot in an object whose heyday is remembered by few.

The Congressman hears about the SS United States from his constituents from time to time. They used to enjoy seeing the giant ship as they traveled down Columbus Boulevard, especially after Lenfest had paid to light it up. That’s been changing the last few years.

“They’re starting to like it less,” Brady said, “because it’s decaying so bad.”

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