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The story behind that massive ship across from IKEA: Once the fastest in the world, one day you might party there

Welcome to Secret Philly, an occasional series in which Billy Penn will visit hidden or exclusive places in Philadelphia and write about them. 

The thing about ships is that they usually aren’t remembered unless they crash (Titanic) or are the focus of a hundred-million dollar Disney production (Black Pearl). Few people notice the dependable ones. 

Case in point: The most distinguished ship in American history is anchored in the Delaware, and unless you’re a maritime buff or someone who compulsively followed local Philadelphia news in 1996 you might not realize it. But it’s true. That giant ship across from the IKEA is the SS United States. It is the fastest passenger ship to ever cross the Atlantic and was once the top choice of travel for the country’s most prominent figures.

Back during the United States’ active days on sea, from 1952 to 1969, it carried presidents like John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman and celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. Young Bill Clinton even took the SS United States across the Atlantic to begin his Rhodes Scholarship.  

In 1996, the United States moved from Newport News, Va., to Philly. The ship has been here since. The SS United States Conservancy bought it outright in 2011 and since then has been trying to get it restored as site for a museum and entertainment. 

Billy Penn talked with people in charge of keeping the SS United States afloat and took a tour.

Inside the ship

In its heyday, the SS United States was renowned for its luxury as well as its functionality. It is the largest non-military ship ever built in the United States and could travel at speeds of about 40 knots, nearly twice as fast as cruise ships today. On its first trip across the Atlantic, it traveled so fast some of its paint was blown off.

This is an actual propeller used by the SS United States. The design for it was classified when the ship first went into service because the government thought the ship might play a role in the Cold War.

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Jared Whalen/Billy Penn

Inside, almost all of the original pieces of furniture, art and other trappings have been removed. This bar is one of the lone pieces that remains. It was located on the tourist class level — just below first class — and is made of aluminum. Much of the ship is made of aluminum, inside and outside. It helped keep the ship light and fast as well as fireproof. No wood or rugs were used in any part of the ship. The designer of the ship even asked Steinway to make an aluminum piano for SS United States. Steinway declined.

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Jared Whalen/Billy Penn

First class people were known to hang out at the tourist level bar because it was a little less uptight. But they had plenty of cool areas of their own where they could unwind, including this ballroom. Passengers would dance after dinner and listen to live music from famous artists like Duke Ellington.

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The promenade deck was a place for people to lounge while still inside the ship. It measures longer than the 100 yards. Given that the United States primarily traveled through the North Atlantic, it was usually a little too cold to be on the outside deck. The ship’s captain was also known to make the crew line up here in the mornings so he could inspect them.

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Jared Whalen/Billy Penn

The caretakers 

A handful of people are responsible for making sure the SS United States doesn’t peel away from the dock and out into the middle of the Delaware. It can be quite an undertaking given the size of the ship and the heavy winds common in this area of the city.  

Because the ship has no power, caretakers must maintain its position in the water solely by keeping it tied to the dock with 12 massive lines. Weather and tides dictate how to tie up the ship.

“There is a science to tying it up,” said Ray Griffiths, one of the caretakers.

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Jared Whalen/Billy Penn

The caretakers work anywhere from one or two days a week to five days, depending on the weather. Griffiths said strong winds are the ship’s “biggest enemy” and usually the only force that requires them to plan for a shift of the lines to compensate.

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Storms usually aren’t a big deal. He said lightning once struck the ship but barely caused any damage. And flooding and even Hurricane Sandy didn’t cause any of the lines to break.

“She could get hit by three hurricanes in a row,” Griffiths said.

The views

You can witness some solid views of Philadelphia from the top levels of the SS United States.

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Jared Whalen/Billy Penn
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The future

The Conservancy envisions the top of the ship, with all those great views, as a place for hosting outdoor events events. The ship is 990 feet long, 101 feet wide, features 12 decks and contains a total of 550,000 square feet. It is massive. The possible developments for its new use could include a museum, hotel, bars banquet areas and much more. Any decisions for exact use would be up to a developer.

Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy, said the Conservancy has been talking to developers for “some time” and are getting closer to finalizing plans. Time is precious. Maintaing the ship costs the Conservancy several thousand dollars a month.

If a developer does invest in the ship, it’s not a guarantee it would remain here in Philadelphia. Gibbs said she would ideally like to see SS United States here or in New York, though.

She said if Philadelphia people are interested in helping with the restoration of the ship they could become involved with the Philadelphia Chapter of the Conservancy. The chapter is hosting a major event on Oct. 29 at the Union League. The Conservancy is always looking for stories about the SS United States, too. So if you had a grandmother or grandfather who rode the ship, they want to know.

Gibbs’ grandfather, William Francis Gibbs, designed the ship. He was a Philly guy who grew up in Rittenhouse Square.

“The idea for it,” she said, “was conceived here.”

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Jared Whalen/Billy Penn
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