SS United States - "The Big U" - in her heyday
Click photo to go to SS United States Conservancy site
 I well remember a little old Irishman with whom I sailed on the Getty ships, back in the 1970s. He was a great guy, a fine seaman, and a good shipmate - I really liked sailing with him. Except, maybe, for one thing: at the slightest provocation he would come out with "That ain't how we did it on the Big U!"

You might be discussing anything from the crew's food on holidays, to how to lash barrels, to tying up the ship; at some point you'd hear the dreaded phrase. As far as he was concerned, that settled the argument - no more to be said! He'd worked on the SS United States in her heyday, and it had been the high point of his career. Big U had been laid up, but in his mind she lived still: big, beautiful, fast - the epitome of all that was powerful and lovely about seagoing ships.

I used to laugh when he said that, but at the same time I sort of envied him his experience. Partly because of his enthusiasm, I looked up some things about the Big U, and became properly impressed. After that, instead of laughing, I'd ask him just how they did do it on the Big U - and sometimes I learned something!

The SS United States has been lying at Philadelphia for some years now, not exactly rusting away - she's had some maintenance and care from her dedicated crew of volunteers - but certainly looking pretty sad. I've been able to see her very close up, from the pier and from a tug, on several occasions. Even in her degraded state, she's a beautiful thing to look at, and I've spent half-an-hour at a time just studying her: following her lines, her slender profile, seeing where the aluminum superstructure had aged differently from the steel, imagining what her bridge would look like - imagining the view from her bridge! 

But the whole time I looked and dreamed, I also thought "Too bad - she'll never be restored - it would cost too much and she'd never support herself - too bad!" That thought cast a pall over my pleasure every time I looked her over. From time to time you'd read stories about some idea for restoring her to service, but none of them seemed very practical, and none of them came to fruition. It seemed only a question of time before she would be turned into razor blades and Coke cans. I didn't like to think about it, so I didn't.

Over the last few years work hasn't taken me to Philadelphia, and I've thought of Big U very little. I even found myself wondering recently whether she was still berthed where I remembered her, and what kind of shape she was in. 

This story from   tells us that, after again being in danger of being scrapped, the ship has been bought by the SS United States Conservancy, backed by a generous contribution from philanthropist Gerry Lenfest  

Out of immediate danger, she is now to begin the transformation into "a stationary, multi-purpose waterfront destination." Her own internal space - roughly equivalent to the space in the Chrysler Building - will be complemented by onshore businesses and amenities to create "a range of proposed revenue-generating uses including, but not limited to, event space, restaurants, retail, and hotel."
A real estate firm experienced in handling historic properties, New Canaan Advisors, LLC, has been hired to assist in the transformation. The whole effort looks well-financed, professionally directed, and much more likely to succeed than past projects. Let's hope it does! 

The way I read the story, she may not remain in Philadelphia; she could help re-invigorate the waterfront of any major city. Wherever she ends up, she'll be a stunning public attraction. 

Do you have any thoughts about this project, or similar ones you may have had experience with? In your opinion, is something like this worth doing? Please let us know what you think in the "Comments" section below!

4/2/2012 05:08:29 am

I really hope someone can make something nice out of this old speed demon. Keep us updated.

4/2/2012 05:25:43 am

I will, and I'm pretty optimistic. As much interior space as the Chrysler Building. . . they oughta be able to do something productive with that much space in such an elegant wrapper!


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