New "Save the United States" pitch planned for ship's $20 million rescue

Enthusiasts gathering at the SS United States in 2010. An emergency fund drive has been launched. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Enthusiasts gathering at the SS United States in 2010. An emergency fund drive has been launched. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 16, 2012

The fund-raisers have a direct and dramatic pitch: "Save the United States."

They don't mean the country. They mean the ship, now rusting on Philadelphia's waterfront across from an IKEA parking lot, that has held the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing since its maiden voyage in 1952.

Today the SS United States will mark the 60th anniversary of that crossing with a ceremony including illumination of its distinctive stacks, the premiere of the second documentary film about the ship, and a special appearance by former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil.

Friday's festivities are but the latest effort to attract donors who might help the SS United States Conservancy, a private foundation, in its quest to save the ship.

A year and a half ago, the United States seemed as if it might be headed to the scrap heap. But Philadelphia-area philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest answered the conservancy's mayday call.

Lenfest offered a significant lifeline — $5.8 million, enough to buy the vessel from previous owner Norwegian Cruise Lines and to keep it docked in Philadelphia for 20 months.

That was February 2011, and with five months to go, the conservancy has raised just $620,000 out of the nearly $20 million that executive director Susan Gibbs says it will need in order to restore a portion of the ship.

To raise the bulk of those funds, the conservancy is set to launch a major online "Save the United States" drive in July. Donors will be offered the chance to buy a virtual replica of one of the ship's rooms, furnish it with their own photographs, and share it via popular social networks. During the summer, the illuminated stacks will also raise public awareness, becoming just as easy to see from I-95 or the bridges at night as they are during the day.

Whether the online fund-raiser and events like Friday's ceremony can raise enough money to spruce up the first part of the ship is still anybody's guess.

"I think that's like trying to predict who's going to be in the Super Bowl," Vermeil said. "But the kind of people they have, and the passion they possess for the overall project, gives them a very good chance to succeed."

Vermeil joined the effort at his friend Lenfest's behest. "It's part of our history," Vermeil said. "If you listen to people who have been on it and remember it as it was, you can see why they're so passionate about returning it to something like that state."

The high-speed ocean liner once listed celebrities such as Walt Disney, Judy Garland, Grace Kelly, and Marilyn Monroe on its guest logs.

Gibbs' grandfather, William Francis Gibbs, designed the vessel, so for her, its stately past is the stuff of family lore. In her grandmother's diary, she read of the caviar served at black-tie captain's dinners.

After reading those accounts of luxury and elegance, Gibbs visited the ship herself. "I had to don a hard hat and was handed a flashlight. It was a kind of haunting juxtaposition."

"I missed the party," she said. The first party, that is. "We're bringing it back."

Act Two for the ship might take any number of forms. The conservancy has been soliciting proposals from developers up and down the East Coast that have expressed interest in converting some part of the 500,000-square-foot space into a hotel, restaurants, stores, and even a floating school, according to Dan McSweeney, who manages the redevelopment arm of the conservancy.

Though McSweeney mentioned two proposals that come from the Philadelphia area, where the ship has been moored for the past 16 years, he said it might also move to New York or Miami.

To fully refurbish the ship, Gibbs said, a developer would likely need to spend about $250 million.

"It's equivalent to building a skyscraper," Gibbs said. "It's like a structure the size of the Comcast building and the Chrysler Building on the waterfront."

Lenfest said, "The restoration of the vessel is really a formidable task. I'd love to see it happen." But he added, "If they can't raise the funding within the time required, then I assume they'll have to sell it for scrap."

Lenfest is also a part-owner of The Inquirer's parent company.

"The hourglass is running out" on the 20-month grace period that Lenfest provided, noted Charles B. Anderson, the president of the conservancy's board. The son of a 12-year captain of the United States, Anderson exhorted others to step forward to help.

"It's almost like letting one of the space shuttles, or the Statue of Liberty, just rust away," he said.

But when the floodlights blaze on Friday, no one will be looking at the rust, McSweeney said. "We're going to light the stacks as a way of saying the ship is still very much alive. She is as beautiful as she ever was."

Gibbs predicted that stirring sight would rally more supporters to steer the ship out of stormy waters.

"We are in a political moment that tends to be divisive and rancorous, and this ship is the opposite of that," she said. “It is something that all Americans can be proud of and inspired by. When I see that energy and momentum, I can't see it failing.

Contact staff writer Julie Zauzmer at 215-854-2771 or jzauzmer@philly.com.

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