A Brief History of the SS United States’ 20 Years in Philadelphia

With the latest redevelopment plans being announced in Manhattan, the SS United States appears headed out of town. Here’s a look back at its 20 years in Philly.

SS United States - Skyline

A view of the Philadelphia skyline from the SS United States in South Philadelphia. (Photo: Dan McQuade)

The SS United States has been “saved” before.

In 2010, Gerry Lenfest donated $5.8 million to the Washington-based SS United States Conservancy in an effort to preserve the ship. “At first I said it’s impossible to do it because it costs too much money and then I thought, ‘Well it’s worth a try because it’s a great ship,’” Lenfest told the Inquirer at the time. “It was a great achievement for the United States to build this vessel, she’s worth saving.”

Search Philadelphia magazine’s SS United States tag and you’ll find lots of stories from the past few years about the ship’s fate. Two years ago, the SS United States Conservancy began a plan to clear out the inside of the ship in order to sell materials and prepare the ship for sale. “It’s a great fixer-upper,” Conservancy executive director Susan Gibbs said.

In July 2014, the ship looked like it was headed to Brooklyn. The New York Times reported the ship could be moving to Brooklyn “within four to six months.” Then in December the Conservancy entered into a preliminary agreement to renovate the ship.

Last October, the SS United States announced it was exploring the sale of the ship for scrap. “We will have no choice but to negotiate the sale of the ship to a responsible recycler,” the Conservancy said in a statement. (Susan Gibbs, the Conservancy’s director, is the granddaughter of ship architect William Francis Gibbs.) Then, last week, the Conservancy announced it would on Thursday make another announcement, this time in Manhattan, about the future of the SS United States.

Though several proposals, including a casino, had been floated for the future of the ship in Philadelphia, a 2011 report from the Conservancy “concluded that it’s not likely to work [in Philadelphia] for a variety of reasons.” So the 20-year stop of the SS United States in South Philadelphia is likely to end. But how did it get here?

SS United States

The SS United States last year. (Photo: Dan McQuade)

The SS United States was completed in 1952 as a luxury liner intended for quick passage between the U.S. and England; it was partially subsidized by the U.S. government, as it could be quickly converted to a ship to hold troops should war break out. It was fast, too: It still holds the eastbound and westbound transatlantic speed records. But air travel quickly made it obsolete. It was out of service by 1969.

Developers had lots of plans for the SS United States. One plan came from Harry Jay Katz, who wanted to dock it in Atlantic City and turn it into a casino. But nothing stuck, and it was destined for the scrap heap in 1992. Then the ship had a savior: It was purchased by Marmara Marine, a company formed for the express purpose of buying the ship, with plans to convert it back into an active cruise liner.

Plans didn’t materialize. The ship was towed to Philadelphia in July 1996. The SS United States sat for a month under the Walt Whitman Bridge, before being docked at Pier 96. A city official, anonymously quoted by the Daily News, had a warning in August: “If the group can’t get financing, we’re stuck with it. I’ve seen a lot of smaller vessels laid up for years.”

A plan to convert the ship into a casino was again discussed. “Our hope is to restore the United States to the grandeur it once had, and to convert her into a floating casino gambling ship and family entertainment center,” William Fugazy, who was advising the owners on the ship’s future, told the New York Daily News. Again, plans to move the ship to Atlantic City were discussed. But renovation into a modern cruise ship seemed its most likely future besides the scrap heap.

But by October of that year, plans to renovate the ship for $200 million were stalled. It was costing $1,000 a day to dock the 990-foot-long ship at Pier 96. The promise of 1,500 new jobs were not enough; the deal eventually fell through.

SS United States hull

The hull of the SS United States last year. (Photo: Dan McQuade)

Eventually, the ship was towed to Pier 82 on Delaware Avenue. At the time, the Daily News pegged the rent at $600 to $1,000 a day. It has been there empty ever since; the ship’s artwork and furnishings had been sold in 1984. By the late ’90s, the ship was piling up debt. It was seized and put up for auction. Edward Cantor, one of the primary owners of Marmara Marine, bought the ship for $7 million in 1997.

The ship was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, despite being less than 50 years old. Cantor died in 2002; the ship passed along to his son. He sold it to Norwegian Cruise Line in 2003. The next year, the company ordered a nine-month feasibility study into what needed to be done to restore the ship to sailing condition. NCL president Colin Veitch said the plan would cost $500 million, a cost that could be recouped by charging high prices. “There are lots of cruise products out there that command a high price because of the novelty factor,” an insider told shipping news publication TradeWinds. The plan was for 11-day cruises between the East and West coasts of the United States.

But the housing market crashed. The cruise industry took a hit. Veitch left Norwegian in 2008. The following year, news broke that Norwegian was looking to unload the ship. All the while, the SS United States rusted away in South Philadelphia.

SS United States - interior view

A view from inside the SS United States. (Photo: Dan McQuade)

In 2010, despite a scrapper bidding nearly $6 million for the ship, Norwegian agreed to sell the ship to the Conservancy for $3 million. Since then, we’ve seen that series of stops and starts about the future of the ship; they included yet another casino proposal. No plan yet has worked, though the ship ended up on the big screen: In 2012, the WWE Studios film Dead Man Down filmed scenes on board and outside the ship.

On Thursday, we’ll find out the latest plans for its future. No matter what, though, the ship’s 20-year run in South Philadelphia seems to be drawing to a close. Oddly enough, the SS United States has been docked here longer than anywhere else. Though many people hate it, I like that there’s a giant, out-of-date ship sitting in South Philadelphia.

That city official was right in 1996: We got stuck with it. But it’s become the most interesting thing in the land of docks, big box stores and strip clubs in that section of South Philly. People gawk at it from the South Philly IKEA. There’s that one stretch of Delaware Avenue where it looks like you’re doing to drive right into the ship, before the road turns. The ship has been rusting in South Philly longer than it was in service. Though the SS United States doesn’t have a future in Philadelphia, we ought to at least wave goodbye when it departs.

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