Feb. 1, 2011 -- A legitimate piece of American history, which many believe should be enshrined and revered forever, instead came dangerously close to the scrap yard, only to metaphorically sail away to safety one more time.
A passionate group of preservationists has purchased the SS United States for the sum of $5.8 million -- enough money to secure and maintain for at least the next 20 months the ocean liner that many have called this nation's most important, daring and beautiful maritime achievement.
The rusted but still floating hulk of an ocean liner (don't dare call it a "cruise ship") has been described as everything from "the space program of the 1950s," to a "national treasure." In the lingering shadow of the Second World War, and the gathering Cold War, the Navy called upon renowned naval architect William Francis Gibbs to build the ultimate wolf in sheep's clothing: an opulent 990-foot ocean liner that could carry 1,900 paying passengers across the Atlantic in high style -- or, in the event of war, 14,000 troops 10,000 nautical miles nonstop.
For military missions, SS United States sported warshiplike features never before seen on a passenger vessel -- features that will never be seen again, like the redundant military engines so powerful they were classified for decades. Or the heavily compartmentalized construction, sound-powered telephones and multiple steering stations.
The ship was never pressed into military service, but was powerful enough to smash the transatlantic speed record in 1952, making New York to the United Kingdom in little more than three days, at an unheard of average speed of 35.6 knots (41 mph).
It would take the record going the other way, too. Amazingly, the record still stands after all these years.
Unfortunately, a different kind of transatlantic travel, in the sky instead of the seas, had already numbered SS United States' days. The ship was abruptly pulled from service in 1969.
Since then, it has passed to a variety of well-intentioned but ill-financed speculators, as countless plans for the ship's resurrection have been conceived, and then shelved just as fast.
Save the SS United States
The ship's fittings were pawned to pay creditors. One group of owners had it towed to Turkey and Ukraine to undo architect Gibbs' famous obsession with fireproofing, and clear the ship of its extensive asbestos. All of the ship's historically important interior appointments were destroyed in the process.
In 1996, SS United States was towed to its present location in South Philadelphia, tied up and left. Before extensive security measures were placed around the ship, it was a sadistic South Philly pastime to shoot out its portholes.
The ship's most recent owners, the Asian-owned Norwegian Cruise Line, had the most ambitious plan for the ship yet -- to restore it as the flagship of an entirely new line, NCL America. Unfortunately, the market for NCL America was never what its owners had hoped, and the cost of restoring SS United States to service condition proved too great. The only other option for the ship appeared to be the scrap yard.
Meanwhile, a group of enthusiasts gathered to fight for the future of the ship, most with deep personal connections to it-- among others, Susan Gibbs, the granddaughter of the architect; and Marine Capt. Dan McSweeney, a first-generation American whose father came to this country to work aboard the ship as a steward.
With the help of Philadelphia philanthropist H. F. "Gerry" Lenfest, the SS United States Conservancy was finally able to purchase the ship from NCL, which, as a nod to the ship's history, graciously accepted half of what scrappers were offering.
The conservancy sees a future for the ship as a mixed-used, permanently-moored waterfront facility, and cites interest from New York, Philadelphia and Miami. While the SS United States floats on, her future is far from assured. Estimates to restore the ship to any kind of useful condition run in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Still, the seas have never been smoother for a redeveloped SS United States. As McSweeney puts it, "We're completely committed to accomplishing this and there's no question that we'll succeed."