The sky looks darkly ominous — almost bruised — as I drive across Columbus Boulevard and turn onto South Delaware Avenue. Philadelphia is in for a massive thunderstorm, and its moody threat provides the perfect backdrop for this service road’s desolate scenery. I pass a chemical company, a power station, a boarded-up brick factory of some sort. Every few blocks the avenue is bisected by train tracks, pitted with tooth-rattling potholes.
Up ahead, the road doglegs to the left, opening up a view across piers 84 and 83. And that’s when I see her port side, the massive funnels rising above the industrial skyline like a thrilling and impossible mirage: the SS United States. She is heart-stoppingly beautiful. I pull over to stare, marveling that something so majestic could live here, across a busy highway from the ugly ordinariness of Ikea, The Home Depot, Best Buy and Chick-fil-A. And her days may be numbered.
American naval architect and marine engineer William Francis Gibbs designed the SS United States. She was constructed in Newport News, Virginia, and her build was like no other. For decades America had been left behind as British liners seized the coveted Blue Riband, which was awarded for the fastest Atlantic crossing of a passenger ship. The construction of Cunard’s RMS Lusitania, RMS Mauretania, RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth had all been partially financed by the British government in order to allow their conversions to troop carriers in times of war. It’s not hyperbole to say that Gibbs’ ship was the work of a visionary. His design for the SS United States was so bold, so large, so fast and so expensive that there was no way to build it without government assistance.
She was constructed between 1950 and ’52 at a cost of $79.4 million ($722 million in today’s dollars), $50 million of which was covered by the government. Almost 1,000 feet in length and just over 100 feet in beam, the Big U, as she was nicknamed, was largely built in prefabricated sections to Navy specifications, with extra bulkheads and multiple engine rooms to avoid flooding. Though luxurious and stylish, she was designed to be broken down for the transport of up to 15,000 troops, should the need arise.
Constructed with a reinforced steel hull and an aluminum superstructure, the SS United States displaced almost 50,000 tons at full draft. The use of wood within the boat was minimized to reduce weight and eliminate fire hazards. The decks were topped with a green high-tech polymer called Neotex instead of the traditional teak; the hangers in passenger cabins were aluminum — even the ballroom’s grand piano was proposed in aluminum, until a fire-resistant wood species could be demonstrated.
Four Westinghouse double-reduction-geared steam turbines, eight Babcock & Wilcox boilers and four shafts powered the ship to a top speed of 38 knots. The SS United States had a total power of 240,000 hp (shaft) delivered to four 18-foot-diameter manganese-bronze propellers. This was the greatest power-to-weight ratio ever achieved in a commercial passenger liner, and it has never been topped. The Big U could carry enough fuel and stores to steam non-stop for more than 10,000 nautical miles at a cruising speed of almost 36 knots.
She captured the Blue Riband, in crossings east and west, immediately. Her maiden voyage from Ambrose Lightship in New York Harbor to Bishop Rock off England’s Cornwall coast took three days, 10 hours, 40 minutes at an average speed of 35.59 knots; the westbound crossing returned in three days, 12 hours, 12 minutes at an average speed of 34.51 knots. The SS United States holds the westbound record to this day. (For the sake of comparison, Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, launched in 2003, has a top speed of just over 30 knots.) And remember, this was 1952 — American cars were being offered for the first time with automatic transmissions!
The SS United States was an engineering marvel that captured the public’s adulation. A celebrity in her own right, she hosted Marlon Brando, Coco Chanel, Sean Connery, Gary Cooper, Walter Cronkite, Bob Hope, Salvador Dali, Duke Ellington, Walt Disney, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Monroe, Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and four U.S. presidents.
After a mere 17 years in service, in 1969, the high operating cost of the ship — as more and more passengers flocked to airlines to cross the Atlantic — led to her mothballing in Newport News. Since she was a Navy Reserve ship, the SS United States was hermetically sealed and waited in her berth, ready to be recalled to service if needed, until 1978. She passed through a series of owners for the next 25 years, each with grand plans that never materialized. After Norwegian Cruise Lines’ goal of returning the ship to passenger service foundered with the Great Recession, the SS United States was listed for sale, then offered for bids to scrap yards.
The SS United States Conservancy stepped in with a campaign to save the ship. Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest made a major gift that allowed the conservancy to buy the ship in 2011 from Norwegian Cruise Lines and covered 20 months of maintenance. Serious negotiations to sell the Big U to a developer who would dock her in New York as a tourist attraction, retail space, museum or other business have been ongoing, but with $60,000 a month required to keep her afloat, time is running out. In the last few months, the alarm has been sounded, and though the conservancy hopes the developers will finalize their plans in time, scrap yard bids have once again been invited.
In Philadelphia and elsewhere, the possibility of the great ship’s ignominious ending has been met with mixed reaction. Some have tired of the constant fundraising, the countless trips to the ledge and the slow wasting of the idle ship. Yet I’d wager that few who have seen her up close feel anything but desperation to save her.
It is impossible to convey the full force of her beauty, the palpable charisma of this ship. I approach her at the pier and hear her dock lines groan and creak as she shifts slightly in the brewing wind before the storm. Her lines are still sleek, her profile graceful, even as decades of sun, wind, rain, snow and disuse have taken their toll. Peeling paint flakes in a scaly pattern on her psoriatic hull sides. Her twin red, white and blue funnels, with their distinctive rake, have bleached to a faded pink that alternates with stripes of weather-bared aluminum. Even before I board the SS United States for a tour, I feel that this rusted beauty is still alive.
Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy and the designer’s granddaughter, waits at the gangplank to guide us through the ship. She is charming, knowledgeable, upbeat but no doubt exhausted by this latest round of drum-beating.
As we walk through the vessel our flashlights’ tiny beams bounce off bare bulkheads and formerly grand staircases in the cavernous darkness, and it is easy to imagine the ship as she was. The ballroom, though gloomy and unadorned, is still grand. The covered promenade deck is bright and airy. Even without a single instrument, the bridge’s expansive forward views and empty wing stations are commanding. Staring out over the stern, you can still see the faint lines of the shuffleboard court.
The ship’s atmosphere is a surprise. Stripped to the bone, she does not feel haunted by the ghost of her former grandeur. She seems proud, dignified, down but not out. She resembles a thoroughbred that was put away too soon, a shameful reflection of how we have wasted our American ingenuity and might on cheap and shiny.
And I am surprised that a piece of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 rattles around my mind because it is about the endurance of love in the face of time.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
Perhaps it’s Gibbs’ love for his creation that I feel, and if that is true, then the SS United States is not just a ship but a work of art — the product of a uniquely American vision and genius that we allow to perish at our shame. It’s a sobering thought, and as we say our goodbyes and I reluctantly start down the gangway, the black sky opens to release a thunderous downpour.
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue.