SS United States: Could the massive ship have a future after 25 years of sitting idle?

If you've ever driven through South Philly along Columbus Boulevard, then surely you've laid eyes on the SS United States. 

You may have even found yourself wondering any number of things. How long has it been there? How did it get there? Why is it still sitting there? 

In 1951, at a cost of over $79 million she left Newport News, Virginia to her port of registry - New York City. 

The ship's designer William Francis Gibbs, a native of Philadelphia, grew up dreaming of designing the fastest ship in the world.
Gibbs saw that dream come true on the ship's maiden voyage to the United Kingdom, at 38 knots or 44mph, breaking the transatlantic speed record in a time just under 3-and-a-half days. 

That record is still held to this day by a passenger ship. 

"She set the record with only two-thirds of her power. We don’t know how fast she actually could have gone," says Gibbs granddaughter, Susan Gibbs. 

Susan wants the SS United States' history preserved so future generations won’t forget what an engineering marvel this vessel is.

"She just symbolized our nation's post-war strength, resilience, greatness," Susan explained. 

In 1969, with air travel becoming a faster and more efficient way to get across the Atlantic, the giant boat was withdrawn from service. After numerous ownership changes and being completely stripped of her art-deco-themed interior over the years she made her way up the Delaware River towards Philadelphia. 


The SS was so tall a portion of its mast had to be removed so it could fit under the Walt Whitman Bridge with only five feet of clearance.

The SS United States has called Pier 82 in South Philadelphia home since 1996. It’s a whopping 175 feet tall and almost 1,000 feet in length. It has sat dormant there for 25 years.

While it would be too costly to make the ship and ocean liner again, some think the ship could still serve a purpose. 

Now, some are wondering if anything can be done to bring the ship back to its glory. 

"We think the SS United States is an amazing candidate for revitalization. There is 500,000 square feet of usable space. So she could be a mixed-use museum and development complex," Susan said. 

The massive ocean liner has shown its age over the years. Outside paint has been chipping away from the structure. Heavy corrosion of rust can be seen, anywhere from the railings to parts of the deck where you can see right through. 

WATCH: Touring the decks of the SS United States

However, because it was built so well, the bones are there to make the ship an attraction. 

"She’s had a rough time since she’s been pulled from service. She’s been waiting a really long time. She’s shown great grace and patience, but yeah we’ve got to get this job done. It’s her time," Susan added. 

Part of the ship's mast had to be removed so it could spare just a few feet of clearance under the Walt Whitman Bridge.

Currently, the ship is owned by the SS United States Conservancy, which is a nonprofit organization founded in 1992. It costs $60,000 a month to dock the ship here in Philadelphia. 

Frank DeGiulio, who is a mariner himself, is on the board of the conservancy and he’s hopeful that they can have her preserved so that future generations can see what a technological and artistic achievement it is.

"We have a partner in RXR Realty, they’re in it, both feet in it, and they’re doing everything they can to try and redevelop this ship," DeGiulio explained. 

If you're wondering why someone doesn't just turn it back into a cruise liner, the answer is simple. 

"The work that it would be required to put it back to sea would be cost prohibitive," DeGiulio explained. 

So what can be done now as she sits waiting?

As you walk through, the once-grand ballroom is completely empty, but once inside you can feel the energy. There is a presence in the room. 

Maybe it's from the dignitaries, the stars of stage and film that walked its stern. Or, maybe just the thousands of former passengers that have stayed in the cabins that make you feel she has something left to give. 

The conservancy is hopeful that someone will come along and save her. There’s no question that it will require a lot of money, but it will take the right vision for the SS to achieve a rebirth. 

The once vibrant interior has been stripped down over the decades. 

"We’re taking it month by month but I’m encouraged," Susan said. 

"The ship is famous worldwide, especially among mariners like me. You could talk to a mariner anywhere in the world and they know this ship, because of how novel it was in terms of the speed and the design," DeGiulio added. 

If you’re thinking maybe it's just time to scrap this hulking keel and bring its time on the water to an end, Susan Gibbs has an answer for that. 

"It would be like destroying a very important part of our history as a nation. I absolutely hope it doesn’t come to that, and I don’t think it will," she explained. 

"I see this ship illuminated, full of people in awe of what she was and what she will become, and she will endure as this remarkable expression of American history, but also a technological innovation and she will just be alive," Susan added. 

July marks the 25th anniversary of the SS United States' arrival in Philadelphia. If you’d like to help or to learn more visit the conservancy's website.



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