Saved from scrap, USS United States needs a development partner

Susan Gibbs, president of the board of the SS United States Conservancy, new owner of the ship, said talks were under way to find public and private partners to create an "economically viable" mixed-use development.
Susan Gibbs, president of the board of the SS United States Conservancy, new owner of the ship, said talks were under way to find public and private partners to create an "economically viable" mixed-use development.
Posted: February 02, 2011

A private group of old salts, dockside dreamers, preservationists, and history buffs took formal possession Tuesday of acres of rust, peeling paint, and possibilities - the historic SS United States.

Once the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic - and still holder of the westbound speed record - the 1,000-foot-long ship has been docked at Pier 82 on the Delaware River, just north of Oregon Avenue, since the late 1990s.

It was teetering on the brink of the scrapyard when philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest stepped up last summer with $5.8 million to begin a serious effort to save the ship and give it a new, rust-free life.

The SS United States Conservancy - the nonprofit group that now owns the ship - used $3 million of the Lenfest money to acquire its prize from the Norwegian Cruise Line/Genting Hong Kong.

A boat scrapper offered twice as much, but NCL/Genting opted for the preservation group, said Susan Gibbs, president of the conservancy's board of directors.

"We are just so elated," said Gibbs, whose grandfather, Philadelphia native William Francis Gibbs, designed the ship. She spoke at a news conference in the restaurant of the Ikea store on Delaware Avenue, with a clear view of the ship's massive smokestacks across the street.

The conservancy now faces what Gibbs calls a "two-front battle."

First, public and private partners must be found to transform the ship into an "economically viable" mixed-use development. Talks are under way with potential partners in Philadelphia, New York City, and Miami. There are no guarantees that the ship will remain in Philadelphia, she said.

Second, a fund-raising campaign must begin.

An initial $1 million campaign was announced Tuesday, for funds that will help pay for deciding what needs to be done.

When 650,000 square feet of deteriorated ocean liner has been sitting dockside for a long, long time, there is a lot that needs to be done. Gibbs estimated cost of restoration as about $200 million.

On a brief tour through the dark and cold interior Monday, the enormity of the task was clear.

The interior has been stripped of appointments, paneling, and decorative elements. Peeling lead paint curls everywhere. Fortunately, the tons of asbestos that once sheathed pipes and served as fire blocks were removed about 20 years ago when the ship was in dry dock.

There are still PCBs, although the extent of the contamination is unclear; the conservancy is working with the Environmental Protection Agency on remediation.

Yet despite such issues, the majesty and the grace of the liner are still very much in evidence. A 500-foot interior promenade, 50 feet above dockside, is bathed with light even on a drizzly winter day.

The old bar, curving and elegant, sweeps its way past 10 stools. Only three bedraggled stool cushions remain - sufficient to evoke a sense of what it was like back in the 1950s and '60s, when the United States was shooting across the Atlantic and a dry martini could usher in a fine evening.

The ballroom, stripped down to peeling yellow paint, stands empty and frigid, the sounds of Fred Myers' orchestra long faded from memory.

Dan McSweeney, executive director of the conservancy, whose father worked as a steward on the United States, said the group has 20 months to put together a viable public-private partnership that will transform the ship into some manner of mixed-use development. He said talks are under way with retailers, hoteliers, and nonprofit groups up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

Twenty months is how long the ship can be maintained with the $2.8 million remaining from Lenfest's gift. If a partnership is not in place by that point, presumably it will go back on the market.

Ray Griffiths, who serves as a kind of caretaker, said the United States was in fine fettle.

"Structurally, she is in good shape," he said, winding his way through the dank lower-ship labyrinths.

Lenfest and the conservancy had hoped a casino would be in the United States' future, but Foxwoods Casino spurned various ideas and is now facing a court battle for its own existence.

McSweeney said a casino deal remained a possibility, but as long as Foxwoods is in court, it is not part of the picture.

"We've already beginning to talk to a number of prospective partners," she said. "We're going to make it happen."


Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com.

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