Fleet, Fast—and Fading

America’s last great liner faces uncertain future

Impossibly sleek and modern, her massive funnels red, white, and blue, the S.S. United States symbolized American power and optimism in the wake of World War II. On the westbound leg of the ship's maiden voyage in 1952, she set a speed record that still stands, taking just three days, 12 hours, and 12 minutes to travel from Bishop Rock off the English coast to Ambrose lightship in New York ­Harbor.

Today, the S.S. United States languishes dockside on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, and preservationists are increasingly anxious about her fate. Norwegian Cruise Line purchased the liner in 2003 and announced plans to return her to service more than three decades after she last carried passengers. The company considered adding the ship to a fleet serving Hawaii, but that has not occurred. At press time, she remains untouched, and hopes for her survival are fading fast.

"People are starting to get a little leery about what Norwegian Cruise Line's intentions are," says Richard Rabbett, a vice president of the S.S. United States Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to saving the ship. "We have to preserve her. She's a tremendously important part of our heritage."

William Francis Gibbs, a renowned naval architect, designed the S.S. United States as a passenger liner that could be converted into a troopship in case of war. He also made her fireproof: Supposedly, the only wood on board consisted of butcher blocks and the grand piano (Steinway refused to manufacture an aluminum one).

Though stripped of her interior fittings, the S.S. United States remains structurally sound. Making her truly seaworthy again, however, could cost $500 million or more. And with steel prices at record highs, preservationists worry that the cruise company will find it more profitable to have her scrapped.

Steve Ciccalone denies that possibility: "She's not at risk and won't be at risk." Ciccalone oversees environmental and safety compliance for Norwegian Cruise Line and also tends to the S.S. United States. He says he's working on new plans to return the ship to service but won't discuss details.

If the cruise company can't make the numbers work, the conservancy will propose contingency plans, Rabbett says. He has already contacted developers and local officials in New York City who might be willing to dock the ship on the West Side and turn her into a hotel, restaurant, or museum. "She's the last greyhound of the North Atlantic," he says. "We can't let her be scrapped."

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