Full Steam Ahead

Plans to restore the SS United States move forward

It's not something you forget, the time you boarded her to visit relatives in Europe, perhaps, or to emigrate to America. The SS United States, with her signature red-white-and-blue funnels, commanded attention and epitomized postwar American power, setting a transatlantic speed record on her maiden voyage in 1952. That record still stands, but the ocean liner often described as the finest ever built was taken out of service in 1969 and in recent years has been docked on the Delaware River just south of downtown Philadelphia, her paint peeling, her fate uncertain.

Norwegian Cruise Line purchased the ship in 2003, intending to add her to its fleet. But that plan failed, and early in 2010 the cruise company began accepting bids from ship scrappers.

Just as the ship's demise appeared imminent, Gerry Lenfest, a Philadelphia philanthropist and former cable television mogul, stepped forward. In partnership with the SS United States Conservancy, a nonprofit group, he donated $3 million to purchase the liner. Norwegian had received an offer nearly double that amount from a scrapper but agreed to sell her to the conservancy. The group's executive director, Dan McSweeney, says, "For Lenfest to understand the gravity of the situation and to make the offer he did—we're very grateful."

All that remains for the $3 million sale to be final: Environmental Protection Agency approval of a remediation plan drafted by the conservancy to address hazardous PCBs inside the ship. McSweeney says he expects the agency to rule by the end of the year.

The conservancy will then attempt to arrange a public-private partnership with a developer interested in refashioning the SS United States as a mixed-use destination, potentially including a hotel, restaurant, and museum. Lenfest has promised to donate as much as $2.8 million to cover maintenance costs as the conservancy attempts to reach an agreement with a developer likely based in either Philadelphia or New York.

"She was a beautiful vessel, the most iconic example of the greatness of the United States in shipbuilding, so I felt she was worth preserving," Lenfest says. He decided to help in part because he remembers the stories his father, a naval architect, told about working for the company that built the ship's watertight doors.

Indeed, personal memories or connections to the SS United States abound. Dan McSweeney, whose father worked on the ship as a steward, says that ­redeveloping the liner will create jobs and will inspire new appreciation for her significance. "People need to be reminded about what this ship represents," he says. "It's important to remember where we came from, our maritime legacy." 

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