Will the SS United States find new life in 2014?

An artist's rendering of the interior of the SS United States ocean liner, which has sat unused since 1996 at Pier 82 in Pennsport.
An artist's rendering of the interior of the SS United States ocean liner, which has sat unused since 1996 at Pier 82 in Pennsport.
Posted: January 06, 2014

YOU GOTTA SAY this much for the people who are trying to resurrect the SS United States: There's no quit in 'em.

In April, the outlook was not good for the huge, historic vessel that has hovered like a specter over the South Philly waterfront since the mid-'90s.

The SS United States Conservancy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that serves as the ship's caretaker, was at that time frantically trying to raise funds to help cover the steep cost - about $80,000 a month - of maintaining the ship and docking it at Pier 82 on Columbus Boulevard.

Donors from around the world contributed at least $205,000, and another $116,000 was raised by scrapping obsolete pieces of the ship that would have had to be cleared eventually by a developer, said Susan Gibbs, the conservancy's executive director.

The influx of cash should cover the ship's upkeep bills for the next six months or so. By that time, Gibbs said, there's hope that a redevelopment deal will finally be close at hand.

"We aren't yet able to make an announcement about a final deal, but we're very hopeful 2014 is going to be the year for the SS United States," she said.

"At this point, the negotiations are confidential, but it's fair to say that the leading prospects are in New York," Gibbs continued. "But the Philadelphia region has not been ruled out."

In March, the conservancy expects to unveil an SS United States exhibition at the Independence Seaport Museum.

Artifacts from the ship - which was designed by Gibbs' grandfather, William Francis Gibbs, and launched in 1951 - will be on display, as will information about its connection to the region and its possible future.

"There are a lot of causes, a lot of challenges that the world is facing," Gibbs said. "Consequently, we're trying a number of approaches at keeping the ship in the public's eye."

British-born author and illustrator David Macaulay, who immigrated to the U.S. onboard the SS United States, has joined the conservancy's executive council and is penning a book about the vessel's creation, Gibbs said.

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

Attracting interest from potential developers hasn't been difficult, but getting someone to fully commit to the project has been another story.

"We've been moving the ball down the field, but we haven't quite reached the end zone," Gibbs said. "The ship has unique engineering challenges, but it's structurally sound and ready for its next chapter."


On Twitter: @dgambacorta

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