Fight continues over the SS United States

The SS United States has rested at Pier 82 in South Philadelphia for 18 years. The conservancy that owns it is feuding with a developer over the ship's fate and home.
The SS United States has rested at Pier 82 in South Philadelphia for 18 years. The conservancy that owns it is feuding with a developer over the ship's fate and home.
Posted: August 12, 2014

Developer Joe Henwood has an idea for the ailing SS United States: Free it from its dockside prison, tow it down the Delaware River, and transform it into a grand, floating hotel beside Harrah's casino in Chester.

The nonprofit conservancy that owns the ship has a response: Forget it. It won't work. And besides, the United States belongs in New York.

For 18 years, the leviathan has cast its rusty shadow over Pier 82 in South Philadelphia. But in recent weeks, discussions over the ship's future have taken on new urgency.

The SS United States Conservancy, the ship's owner, says decisions about its fate and future must be made this fall. Others who care about the ship raise concerns over the conservancy's removal and sale of internal parts. Some say that despite four years of effort, the conservancy has gotten nowhere.

"I think the conservancy has had its shot," said Irvin Richter, founder, chairman, and chief executive of Hill International, a global construction-consulting firm based in Marlton. "They haven't done anything with it."

It's time, he said, for new owners and a fresh perspective, people like him who are ready to help turn the ship into a spectacular hotel, restaurant, and retail complex, similar to the Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif.

Susan Gibbs disagrees.

The conservancy executive director, granddaughter of the ship's designer, said it's only through the work of the group and its supporters that the United States is here at all.

"I'm very proud of our progress," she said. "We saved the ship from certain scrapping. . . . We're closer than we've ever been to securing a permanent home for the ship, and we continue to have positive meetings with developers. But we have not yet crossed the finish line."

Even under favorable circumstances, restoration is an extremely complicated and costly endeavor, business plans overlaid with historic preservation, undertaken at a time when charitable giving lags and the economy remains sluggish.

In June, conservancy officials said they were on the cusp of successful negotiations to put the ship in Brooklyn or Manhattan, and would announce specifics at the end of July. Last week, with no announcement made, they said talks were continuing.

Dan McSweeney, a conservancy board member and managing director of the SS United States Redevelopment Project, said the size and density of the target population in the Philadelphia area were too small to support a project estimated to cost $300 million.

The conservancy wants to anchor the ship in a major city where it would become a tourist attraction, museum, educational facility, retail venue, and hotel.

"The population and number of visitors interested in visiting the ship would be much larger in New York," he said.

Meanwhile, the conservancy operates in a constant struggle for money to save the ship.

It sold one of the ship's massive propellers to a recycling firm to help cover the vessel's $80,000-a-month maintenance costs. In July, it was poised to sell another when Jim Pollin of the Pollin Group donated $220,000 to halt the sale.

"She's as iconic a symbol as the Washington Monument or Empire State Building, and she must not be destroyed on our watch," Pollin said at a news conference.

Others want to know whether the conservancy is removing precious metals from the ship's lower chambers under the guise of renovation.

"What's being taken out of there? And how much money is being generated?" asked Tony Lame, a longtime conservancy member. "And are these guys doing this in an organized fashion, or are they just taking out everything they can get their hands on?"

Conservancy officials deny that "precious metals" have been removed, but said nickel, brass, copper, and aluminum have been sold, with the money used to support the ship's maintenance.

Removing obsolete parts created space for future modern heating, cooling, and electrical systems, work that needs to be done at some point, but brought in money by being done now, the group said. None of the material is historically significant or vital to the ship's structural integrity, it said.

In its day, the United States was a queen of the sea, designed by naval architect William Francis Gibbs of Philadelphia, its steel forged at Lukens Steel in Coatesville.

The ship was both luxury liner and secret weapon: It could quickly be turned into a troop ship able to transport 15,000 soldiers up to 10,000 miles without refueling.

The ship's 1952 maiden voyage shattered the trans-Atlantic speed record, which it still holds. It sailed 400 times from New York to Europe and other destinations, ferrying noblemen and immigrants, along with Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy.

But in the 1960s, plane travel made liners outmoded. When the United States docked in Newport News, Va., for an annual overhaul in 1969, it was taken from service. The ship was moved to Norfolk, sold, resold, put up for auction, towed to Turkey and to Ukraine, and finally to Philadelphia in 1996, its furniture and interior long since stripped.

It seemed destined for scrap when its owner, Norwegian Cruise Line, offered it for sale in 2009. The conservancy was offered the first chance to buy but lacked the money.

The next year, a savior emerged: Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, now owner and publisher of The Inquirer, said he would donate up to $5.8 million to save the ship. The money allowed the conservancy to buy the vessel and keep it docked near Columbus Boulevard while redevelopment plans went forward.

Few doubt the conservancy has worked zealously - staging exhibits about the ship, publicizing its history, and raising money - or that those efforts might be for naught.

"I think they've done the best they can," Lenfest said. "It's a monumental task to raise that money to restore the vessel. They've tried with integrity, and they've tried very hard."

He said he did not plan to put more money into the project.

The conservancy said that it had considered sites in Philadelphia, Chester, Miami, Baltimore, and Boston, but that New York offered the best option for rebirth.

Henwood rejected that argument.

"It's not going to New York. It's not going to happen," said the head of Binnacle Group L.L.C. in Media. "New York is the most expensive, risky place in the world to do business."

He and the conservancy have held sporadic, fruitless negotiations since 2009. The conservancy said talks failed after it repeatedly sought details regarding Henwood's qualifications and potential investors but received no concrete answers.

Henwood said he was talking to four major investors and expected to win the ship once the conservancy runs out of money.

"When they can't control it any longer, when it's ready to get scrapped, we'll step in," he said. "We're approaching this as a business, not as a rescue mission for an old ship."

Drawings by the Binnacle Group portray the ship docked just south of the oval at Harrah's racetrack and casino. The group imagines the USS Olympia, whose future has been uncertain, set nearby, with space devoted to a conference center and museum.

"It can be done," said Villanova Business School economist David Fiorenza.

The Queen Mary serves as a hotel and show space. In the Netherlands, the SS Rotterdam has become a four-star hotel. Last year in Sweden, the 1953 passenger liner Birger Jarl found new life as a hostel.

The project would help impoverished Chester, Fiorenza said, boosting a waterfront that also hosts PPL Park, home to the Philadelphia Union soccer team. But, he cautioned, the expense and complication would be enormous.

Henwood said turning the ship into a 500-room hotel could take five years and cost $400 million. Chester would embrace the project, he said, citing a 2012 letter from Mayor John Linder that said the city could not help pay, but "we nonetheless fully endorse the concept."

The ship won't go anywhere soon. An arduous towing-permit process lies ahead, and on-board inspections identified PCBs, carcinogens often found in old paint and insulation.

"They can't move the ship until the PCBs have been removed," said Donna Henon, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, who added that the conservancy had provided a draft remediation plan.

The conservancy said it would comply with all government regulations before moving the ship.

Gibbs said it would be a national tragedy if the conservancy were forced to scrap the United States. Though there is no guarantee, she said she was confident the ship could be saved and restored.

"The SS United States continues to capture interest and attention from prospective developers, but we need a partner to begin contributing to the ship financially in very short order," she said. "We know there's another angel out there, someone who, like me, may have trouble sleeping at night knowing that America's iconic flagship, the SS United States, is in grave danger of going under."


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

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