LIers join effort to save historic ocean liner

SS United States is shown docked in Philadelphia.

SS United States is shown docked in Philadelphia. (Jan. 21, 2014) (Credit: Chris Ware)

PHILADELPHIA - The decades-long struggle to save America's most famous ocean liner has reached a critical stage, with its admirers -- including key players on Long Island -- working hard to make sure dwindling funds don't steer the SS United States into the scrapyard.

The 61-year-old vessel, which still holds the record for the fastest Atlantic ship crossing, has been idle since 1969 and rusting at a Delaware River pier here for 17 years.

A donor gave almost $6 million to the SS United States Conservancy in 2011 so it could buy the ship.

But Susan Gibbs, the nonprofit's executive director and granddaughter of ship designer and part-time Locust Valley resident William Francis Gibbs, says the group must by this summer nail down a deal with a developer interested in transforming the ship into a hotel, museum, restaurants, shops and event space, and a place to berth it permanently.

Otherwise, the group could run out of money because it costs almost $2,000 a day to dock and insure the gutted ship, which is longer than three football fields.

The Hudson River in Manhattan is the conservancy's preferred choice for a new home, but there are also negotiations underway with Philadelphia and Miami, Gibbs said.

"New York is a very, very compelling choice because that was the ship's homeport during its 17-year service career," she said. "But we're in a race against time."

 

Developer, location needed

Without a commitment to begin restoration, a scrapyard or a future as an artificial reef could be the vessel's fate -- instead of mixed-use redevelopment like the Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif.

"There is definite interest" from cities and developers, Gibbs said.

The problem is getting a developer and a location onboard at the same time.

The New York City Economic Development Corp. has had "very preliminary discussions" with the conservancy, according to EDC spokesman Ian Fried.

Renovating what the conservancy calls "the most famous ocean liner that never sunk" will be a titanic job. Thomas Basile, a consultant to the 4,000-member conservancy, said exterior renovation, installation of new mechanical systems and creation of the museum would cost about $30 million. The additional cost of redeveloping the rest of the interior would depend on the developer's design.

"Fortunately, even though cosmetically a lot needs to be done, the ship is very structurally sound," Basile said. It was overbuilt at the insistence of the Navy, which had dibs in event of war.

Despite the enormity of the task, the ship's supporters remain optimistic. They say it has to be saved because it was so groundbreaking, not to mention gorgeous.

Susan Caccavale, a conservancy board member from Smithtown, cites "the uniqueness of the ship. It is a symbol of American technology and innovation in the 1950s. It's very important for children today to see how it was designed."

The upper portion of the SS United States was built primarily of aluminum to save weight and make the ship fireproof. William Gibbs liked to say the only wood on the ship were pianos and chefs' cutting boards.

Caccavale, a Hofstra University marketing instructor, has a personal interest in saving the ship: Her mother, mathematician and Plainview resident Elaine Kaplan, led the engineering group that designed the revolutionary and top-secret propellers.

Kaplan, who died in 1997, was the only woman among the 50 top engineers designing the liner. "She had to have top military clearance because the ship was designed to be able to be instantly converted into a military vessel to carry 14,000 troops," Caccavale said.

 

Ship's storied past

On a recent tour, journalists walked through the cavernous interior where the only furnishings remaining are two aluminum bars in passenger lounges. The first stop was an empty deck where all that is left of the staterooms are the plugged drains in the bathroom floors.

"The Duke and Duchess of Windsor with their five pug dogs used to stay in one of the suites," Basile said. "Every celebrity of the '50s and '60s traveled aboard the United States, along with heads of state, including four presidents. It was their transportation of choice over to Europe in the days before jet air travel."

The ship has about 500,000 usable square feet that can be redeveloped, Basile said. The conservancy is freeing up 50,000 square feet of that space by removing obsolete mechanical equipment in the lower engineering spaces and selling it for scrap. An engine room is being saved as a museum exhibit.

Among the Long Islanders rooting for a happy ending is William King of East Hampton.

As he was graduating from Cooper Union in Manhattan, King was hired to create a 10-by-25-foot Mercator map for the wall of the first-class smoking lounge.

"It was my first jump into the big time," said King, 89, who went on to have a successful career as a sculptor. "It was astounding to work on the ship, and it would be wonderful if they can save it."

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