The rusting ocean liner docked across from the Ikea may soon be kicked out of its Delaware River berth. The ship was actually asked to leave last year due to unpaid rent, but has remained in place in defiance of an eviction notice.
Christened the SS United States, the ship embodies the era of its creation. Big government backing flowed into what was considered an engineering marvel assembled completely in America, designed to serve commercial and military ends while impressing on the world stage.
Its 1952 maiden voyage broke transatlantic records set by a British liner called the Queen Mary, and the widely celebrated feat doubled as a passing of the “world hegemon” baton from the U.K. to the U.S.
But time passed harshly for the icon of an age, and its ultimate deterioration and legal troubles sound all too modern. The ship’s current owners will soon go to court over a common conundrum — the rent is too damn high!
The 990-foot-long aluminum hull has been parked at a South Philly pier since 1996. Two years ago, the pier doubled its rent from $850/day to $1700/day. The ship’s owners, a nonprofit hoping to restore and find a use for it, say the cost increase is illegal. They’ve refused to pay, and now owe back rent in excess of $160,000.
The case was originally dismissed but is set to restart this month, and could lead to the end of nearly 30 years of looming riverfront scenery.
Like many good stories, the tale of the SS United States begins in Philadelphia, spans the globe, and winds up back where it all started.
The Gibbs brothers have an idea
William Francis Gibbs, lead designer of the SS United States, was born in Philadelphia in 1886, into a well-off family with a financier father. Early on, his passions were clear — he was a ship guy.
“In this city, many years ago, I was taken by my parents to see a great ship launched at the Cramp Yard,” Gibbs told the Franklin Institute as they feted him in 1953, referencing a shipyard on the Delaware in what was known as the Kensington district. “That was my first view of a great ship and from that day forward I dedicated my life to ships.”
He was joined by younger brother Frederic Herbet Gibbs in that lifelong endeavor. It began with fits and starts in the 1910s, when the elder Gibbs would pore over British naval designs during his downtime at Harvard.
A biographer notes that “he made an extensive study of all available information on the newest warships of the British Navy,” knowledge that would serve him well.
But first he earned a law degree, graduating from Columbia Law School in 1913, and began to work in real estate, coming back home to Haverford on the weekends to collaborate with his brother on designing and amassing the resources for a transatlantic passenger vessel.
In 1915, the Gibbs brothers brought their designs to U.S. Navy top brass, who lent legitimacy to their blueprints. In search of financing the pair then consulted with J.P. Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine Company, which hired them as chief constructors.
William Gibbs served in the bureaucratic rungs of the Army during World War I and attended the Peace Conference at Versailles as an assistant to the chairman of the U.S. Shipping Board.
National clout successfully acquired, Gibbs Brothers Inc. was established in 1922 at the behest of the Shipping Board to convert the Leviathan troopship into a passenger ship. After a successful conversion, many similar contracts and full construction projects followed.
The brothers incorporated with yacht designer Daniel Cox in 1929, forming Gibbs and Cox., which became a regular contractor for the country’s burgeoning military industrial complex. The firm was reportedly responsible for the design of 74% of all American naval vessels used in World War II.
In 1946, they made their pitch to General John Franklin, president of United States Lines, the private firm born out of the now-defunct Shipping Board.
“We discussed the possibility of a great ship,” William Gibbs recalled years later. It was agreed that a ship “should be built primarily for the national defense of the United States” but still “combine in such a design the requirements of a passenger ship.”
From there, Navy officials gave the plan the okay, and it was time to build the SS United States.
Across the ocean in 3.5 days
The quasi-public nature of the project resulted in most of the ship’s cost, reportedly $79.4 million (nearly a billion today with inflation), being covered by the government.
- The Newport News Shipbuilding company got the job done in 2.5 years, six months before schedule.
- Aluminum was the material of choice for most of the ship from the hull down to lifeboats, making it lighter.
- The funnels on the ship were the biggest in the world when constructed, with the largest measuring 60 feet wide and 55 feet high.
- It weighed over 53,330 tons, with engines that could reach 240,000 horsepower.
- Navy standards deeply influenced the compartmentalized layout, including separate engine rooms, given the ship’s role as a military/commercial boat.
- All the internal decor was treated with a “resin compound” to make it fireproof.
Gibbs was a classic micromanager who tended to grate on workers in search of perfection. But on July 3, 1952, triumph was on the horizon.
For decades, vessels had made a competition out of transatlantic travel, complete with awards for being the fastest to cross the ocean. The Blue Riband was the original informal prize, while the Hales Trophy began to be awarded for westbound trips in the 30s. The hype was that the SS United would aim to break a 1938 record set by the RMS Queen Mary. The British ship had completed the circuit from New York Harbor to Cornwall in just under four days.
In the end it wasn’t much of a competition: The SS United States beat the record by nearly 10 hours, seeming to herald a new age in nautical supremacy.
The feat was widely celebrated, including by the Franklin Institute, which gave Williams Gibbs the Franklin Medal (prompting the acceptance speech quoted above). He also received the first Elmer A. Sperry Award, meant to recognize advancements in transportation engineering.
It was the peak of his career, cherished by Gibbs until his 1967 death, two weeks after he turned 81.
Around the world and back again
The bright future imagined for the SS United States after its record-setting voyage didn’t exactly pan out. Its record remained unbeaten until 1986, but air travel changed the game.
Before it was decommissioned, celebrities like Duke Ellington, Walt Disney, and Marilyn Monroe were repeat riders, the boat popped up in quite a few 60s films, and a young Bill Clinton even boarded in 1968.
For all the fuss and funds that went into its national security-oriented construction, the ship was never used for martial tasks. In the end, the vessel completed 400 voyages with no major safety issues, but the market for speedy transatlantic trade shifted towards the sky and in 1969 the ship was retired.
It was sent back to Newport News, then abruptly closed down in the middle of renovations when the government cut off funding.
The SS United then began its second life as a lumbering, increasingly stripped behemoth being dragged around the world. That last bit isn’t an exaggeration: After decades being scuttled up and down the East Coast as ownership changed, the ship was bought by Turkish shipping magnates in the early 1990s and pulled back across the Atlantic.
Those owners brought it to Ukraine’s Sevastopol shipyard — currently occupied by Russian vessels and the target of Ukrainian fire — to have asbestos removed. Its stay in Ukraine, where the boat was nicknamed the “asbestos coffin,” apparently left lasting environmental harms well into the 2000s, per local reports.
Norwegian Cruise Lines then bought the ship, in 1996 dragging it to the South Philly berth where it sits today. It was supposed to be part of a Hawaiian cruise line, but that didn’t work out, and eventually its repurposing was deemed impossible.
A nonprofit called the SS United States Conservancy, now led by William Gibbs’s granddaughter, formed with the aim of buying the ship. In 2010 it was reported that the vessel would be sold for parts, and the Conservancy sprang into action.
The organization launched a fundraising campaign, and, with the help of Philly philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, ultimately bought the ship in 2011 for about $3 million.
While the organization has worked to repurpose the ship, to date no firm plans have been set. All that’s been set, in fact, are court dates to see if the once heralded ocean liner can avoid eviction from South Philadelphia.
Correction: A previous version of this article had a typo regarding the weight of the ship.