Friends of the S.S. United States Send Out a Last S.O.S.


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The S.S. United States, docked in Philadelphia last year.

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Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

A Titanic-sized supership that once ferried presidents, Hollywood royalty, actual royalty and even the Mona Lisa has a place in the history books as the fastest oceanliner in the world. The owners are now racing to avoid having the ship, the S.S. United States, relegated to the junk heap.

A preservationist group, the S.S. United States Conservancy, saved the vessel from being scrapped a few years ago. Its members are working with a developer to give the mothballed vessel a new life as a stationary waterfront real-estate development in New York City, the ship’s home port in her heyday.

Their big dreams, however, now face a financial crisis: Short of money, the conservancy in recent days formally authorized a ship broker to explore the potential sale to a recycler. In other words, the preservationists might have to scrap their vessel.

It came down to hard numbers. The preservationists have struggled for years to raise the $60,000 a month it costs to dock and maintain the ship, known as the Big U, which is longer than three football fields and once sailed the Atlantic with three orchestras on board. A developer only recently started shaping plans to fill the ship with tenants, an undertaking of the kind that can stretch for years even when it is not this unusual.

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S.S. United States

CreditUnited States Lines Company News Bureau


“The project is not cookie-cutter,” said Susan Gibbs, the conservancy’s executive director. “This has complicated our efforts.”

The conservancy continues to seek out donors, investors or a buyer to preserve the ship and press forward with development. But unless something happens by Oct. 31, the group said in a statement, “We will have no choice but to negotiate the sale of the ship to a responsible recycler.”

The decision to seek bids from scrappers was “excruciating,” said Ms. Gibbs, particularly since the development plan emerged in the last year. “We’ve never been closer to saving the S.S. United States, and we’ve never been closer to losing her,” she said.

Her connection is personal. Ms. Gibbs’s grandfather William Francis Gibbs, a giant of 20th century naval architecture, designed the ship and considered it his masterwork.

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