A Push to Bring the S.S. United States Back Home
The S.S. United States, which carried immigrants to America and vacationers to Europe faster than any other ocean liner, has not sailed into New York harbor in 40 years. But some fans of the giant ship are telling city officials that it should come home to Manhattan.
Stripped of its interior appointments, streaked with rust, the United States has languished at a dock in Philadelphia for more than a decade. Several dreams of restoring it, as a passenger ship or a floating condominium, have been aborted.
Now, in a desperate attempt to avert its scrapping, a group calling itself the S.S. United States Conservancy is suggesting that the ship could be a floating hotel and tourist attraction on the Hudson River waterfront.
Dan McSweeney, executive director of the conservancy, has pitched the idea to officials of the city’s Economic Development Corporation and this week, he is scheduled to present it to a committee of Community Board 4. Mr. McSweeney emphasized in an interview that the notion is “a very broad, general preliminary idea.”
Rehabilitating the United States and moving it to New York would surely cost much more than $100 million. None of that money has been raised, Mr. McSweeney said. City officials have encouraged the group to pursue the venture but have yet to offer any financial support, he said.
“There is an economic reality here,” Mr. McSweeney said. “Saving the ship is a significant expense, and the return on that investment won’t occur for some time.”
At the moment, he said, he is sounding out local officials and trying to identify prominent people – preferably, some who are very rich – who will support and promote the plan. Before his death, Walter Cronkite was the best-known advocate for reviving the United States.
As a first step, the ship would have to be purchased from Norwegian Cruise Line, which has owned it since 2003. The Norwegian company had intended to restore it and operate it on cruises out of American ports. But about a year ago, the company offered it for sale again, leaving enthusiasts to fear that it would be cut up for the value of its steel — probably just a few million dollars.
Bigger than the Titanic, and with two massive funnels that make it look almost like a caricature of what an ocean liner should look like, the 990-foot-long United States holds a special place in the hearts of its fans. It once was the fastest of all ocean liners. In July 1952, it steamed out of New York harbor on the first of its 400 ocean crossings. In 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes, it reached the coast of England, having shaved 10 hours off the Queen Mary’s record time for the route.
In one famous exchange as it passed the Queen Mary mid-ocean, the United States radioed: “Sorry old girl.” The reply from the Queen Mary: “Your girls are faster than our girls.”
The United States continued sailing until 1969, when the rise of jet travel diminished the allure of trans-Atlantic voyages. Since then, the 58-year-old ship has changed hands several times. One frustrated owner auctioned off all of its interior parts, including its bell, in 1981. It was later towed to Ukraine, where asbestos and other hazardous materials were removed.
The ship is still structurally sound and its hollowed out interior is a “blank slate” that could be outfitted for a variety of uses, including a hotel with restaurants, bars and convention space, Mr. McSweeney said.
New York is a natural place for the ship because the city was its home port and there are several potential berths for it along the Hudson, he said. In discussions with the Economic Development Corporation, Mr. McSweeney mentioned Governors Island as a possible site, as well, a corporation official said.
Still, Mr. McSweeney has not given up on Philadelphia.
“We’re really at the beginning of the whole process of either coming to New York or staying in Philadelphia,” he said.
That is if he can find a way to save the ship from the scrap heap of maritime history.
By PATRICK MCGEEHAN
New York Times