Granddaughter of SS United States' designer turns to documentary, social-media campaign to save ship

Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy and granddaughter of the ship's designer, is heading a social media campaign to preserve the liner, docked in South Philadelphia. Story and photos on C1.
Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy and granddaughter of the ship's designer, is heading a social media campaign to preserve the liner, docked in South Philadelphia. Story and photos on C1. (SARAH CARLEY)
Posted: March 06, 2013

Reading her grandmother's diary descriptions on the way to Philadelphia, Susan Gibbs imagined the great ship in its heyday: ladies in their mink stoles, ballroom dancing, indoor pool, champagne, luxurious spa, and pleasant sea breezes.

Her grandfather, William Francis Gibbs of Rittenhouse Square, had designed the world's fastest, safest, and most technologically advanced ocean liner - the SS United States - and saw its launch in 1951.

His "queen of the seas" represented, for many, America's optimism and can-do spirit after World War II. The 2,000-passenger ship still holds the transatlantic speed record.

From the window of her minivan, Gibbs caught her first glimpse of it in 2001, then headed to the pier on Columbus Boulevard in South Philadelphia to get a closer look.

Her heart sank. The once-vibrant red, white, and blue funnels were faded; paint was peeling, cobwebs filled portholes, and streaks of rust ran down the side like tears.

Still, an undeniable air of dignity and strength clung to the ship. The sharp bow and rakish lines of her grandfather's cherished dream hooked Gibbs, 50, who now lives in Washington.

"His obsession became my obsession," she joked. "It was genetically predetermined. . . . I definitely felt called to join others trying to save the ship."

As the executive director of the SS United States Conservancy, Gibbs is heading up an unusual social-media campaign. A 55-minute documentary film is being released on the Web in five chapters over the next few weeks as a way of increasing public awareness of the ship's historic significance and raising funds for its preservation.

The film - S S United States: Made in America - can be seen at http://bit.ly/YADSK1

Each chapter directs viewers to another website - SavetheUnited States.org, where they can virtually save and personalize pieces of the vessel online for a contribution of as little as $1 and upload photos and messages that link to their own social-media profiles.

"It's like people buying [memorial] bricks for Ellis Island - the same general concept, but virtual," Gibbs said.

She hopes the online push will raise $1 million for the critical next phase - museum planning and some preservation costs. The dry-docking and exterior restoration will cost more. Gibbs also hopes the new campaign will encourage large investors to plot a new course for the SS United States, possibly as a hotel with offices, retail, conference facilities, a museum, even a casino. Restoring and converting the ship could cost as much as $300 million.

In the short term, Gibbs said, the Conservancy has significant maintenance costs. If funds run out, "the ship would regrettably need to be scrapped."

Philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest saved the ship from the scrap heap with a $5.8 million donation in 2010. Lenfest is a partner in the group that owns The Inquirer.

"Until the advent of the Internet, I often felt like I was the only one who remembered this great ship," said the film's director, Robert Radler, who is best known for directing HBO's Substitute series, the Best of the Best martial arts dramas, and a host of television shows  . "Through the power of new technology and social media, we have found that there is a community of people all around the world who care about this great vessel and her place in history."

Like others who saw the liner steaming through New York Harbor during her service career from 1952 to 1969, Radler was mesmerized by the SS United States.

"There was something about this ship that set her apart from all the others," he said. "With that streamlined bow and those huge red, white, and blue funnels, she looked like she was going 50 miles an hour standing still."

The excitement of boarding the liner in 1958 never left Rosalyn McPherson, now president of the ROZ Group, a Center City communications and projects management firm. McPherson, who now lives in Cherry Hill, was 5 when she joined her father, mother, younger sister, and great-aunt on a voyage to Europe.

"Other family members came to see us off at the pier; it was an electric experience," said McPherson, 59. "People used to dress up to travel then; it was particularly glamorous."

An African American, McPherson "didn't experience any hostility or racism. People were welcoming and engaging," she said. "It was still a time of deep segregation in many parts of the country, but we had an integrated experience.

"We did all the things other kids did, and we went down to dinner in the main dining hall like everyone else."

McPherson didn't see the ship again until 2000. "I was in a cab when I saw it and called my mom and said, 'You'll never believe what I just saw.' [Its condition] was heartbreaking."

McPherson is overseeing the design of the ship's proposed museum and curatorial project. "I knew whatever was going to be done, I wanted to be part of it," she said. "I felt that strongly about it. That ship was part of my heritage."

Dan McSweeney was similarly drawn to the ship - but for other reasons. His father was a ship steward until the SS United States' 400th and last voyage in 1969.

"My father worked on the ship over the years, and it had a mythic quality in my life," said McSweeney, who saw the ship for the first time in 1999. "It had a powerful intellectual and emotional attraction."

McSweeney, 42, later cofounded the SS United States Conservancy, and is managing director of the ocean liner's redevelopment project and one of the producers of the five-part film.

The liner is a "magnificent-looking vessel, a thing of beauty that symbolizes a period in our country's history when we could do anything we set our minds to," said Mark Perry, a member of the conservancy's board and producer of the American Public Television documentary SS United States: Lady in Waiting. "It's like the forerunner of the space program."

"We're hoping [the Internet effort] will inspire people to preserve it. The clock is ticking."


Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.


 

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