$O$ for the United States

Posted: April 01, 2013

SOME NIGHTS, the SS United States wakes Susan Gibbs from her sleep.

She's shaken by the idea of the once-magnificent ship - whose hulking, rusted profile has loomed over Columbus Boulevard in South Philly since 1996 - meeting its end in some grim scrap yard.

That nightmare scenario is set to play out, unless the SS United States Conservancy - the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that formed two years ago to revive the ship - can raise $500,000 in the next two months.

"If we can hit that goal, it can buy the time we need to put the pieces in place to make something happen," said Gibbs, the executive director of the conservancy.

The conservancy launched a website, savetheunitedstates.org, where folks can donate to the cause, even as little as a $1, which buys donors a virtual square inch of the storied ship.

A second installment of an online documentary about the ship will soon debut, with the hope of attracting more interest in the vessel's storied past - and a possible future that could see it redeveloped as a hotel and retail destination.

"Here's a ship that symbolized technology, speed and innovation," Gibbs said.

"Right now it's serving as a metaphor for American decline. We're absolutely determined to turn that around."

The conservancy purchased the ocean liner in 2011 with a $5.8 million donation from H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest. (Lenfest is the chairman and co-owner of Interstate General Media, which owns the Daily News.)

Part of Lenfest's donation covered the associated costs of the ship's upkeep for 20 months. Gibbs said that the conservancy spends about $80,000 a month on insurance, maintaining artifacts and renting the ship's spot at Pier 82.

The conservancy has had numerous discussions with developers in New York and Pennsylvania about potential redevelopment plans, but an actual deal has proved elusive.

The quest to save the ship has been funded entirely by private donations. Gibbs said she hopes to attract political support, but knows that it will be difficult to attract anything other than some perfunctory well-wishes.

For Gibbs, the cause is plenty personal. Her grandfather William Francis Gibbs grew up in Philly and was the designer of the SS United States. The ship launched in 1951, and was larger than the Titanic and faster than the Queen Mary.

"He first dreamed the dream upon seeing another ship launched into the Delaware River as an 8-year-old boy," Gibbs said.

"So many people are investing their hearts and souls into completing this project, and carrying through that distant dream that he had. We can, and frankly must, do this."


On Twitter: @dgambacorta

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