Outside the Box: Beyond the Sea with the SS United States

Envisioning a new future for the fastest transatlantic ocean liner in history

"Look at her!” says Susan Caccavale as we approach the SS United States at Philadelphia's Pier 82 on the Delaware River. “She's so majestic!” Even in its current state — rusting, paint peeling, colors faded — the once elegant ocean liner still has that certain something.

Caccavale is a board member for the nonprofit SS United States Conservancy, which seeks to preserve the 992-foot-long historic vessel and reinvent it as a floating museum and mixed-use facility. Her mother, Elaine S. Kaplan, led the engineering team for the once top-secret propellers that allowed the SS United States to reach unmatchable speeds.

The conservancy's executive director, Susan Gibbs, is also visiting the ship today. Her grandfather, the famous naval architect William Francis Gibbs, designed the United States to be the world's fastest, safest ocean liner. Financed largely by the U.S. government — which wanted a vessel it could quickly convert into a superfast troop ship — Gibbs used as much aluminum as possible to keep the ship light and fireproof. Launched in 1952, the United States set a new speed record on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic — and another one on the reverse crossing. The westbound crossing record has never been broken.

Rendered obsolete by transatlantic aircraft travel, the United States made its last voyage in 1969. Subsequent purchasers stripped its furnishings, leaving it rusting and empty. In 2011, Philadelphia
philanthropist H. “Gerry” Lenfest provided $5.8 million for the conservancy to purchase the ship. The group embarked on a $500,000 fundraising campaign to maintain the ship and estimates it will cost as much as $25 million for the first phase of a planned redevelopment.

Today, the stage in the first-class ballroom where Duke Ellington once played remains, but the tables that seated celebrities such as Grace Kelly and Marlon Brando are long gone. The bridge is almost empty, and the bow is littered with rusty winches and equipment. On the deteriorating surface of the aft deck, fading ghosts of shuffleboard courts linger behind one of the ship's propellers. Below deck, the engine rooms still hold the ship's innovative high-pressure turbine systems.

Susan Gibbs wonders what her grandfather would think if he saw his creation today. “On the one hand I think he would be devastated,” she says. On the other, she adds, “There's still a fighting chance to save her.”

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