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.
“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.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the ship was a marvel of technology and elegance, offering regular passenger service between New York and Europe. The 1952 maiden voyage smashed trans-Atlantic speed records. She was so fast, her propellers were a Cold War state secret.
Passenger jets doomed the superliners, however. The S.S. United States left service in the late 1960s. Today she is docked in Philadelphia, stripped of her interiors and rusting in the Delaware River across the street from an Ikea store.
The redevelopment plan is underway, said Keith Harper, vice president for design at Gibbs & Cox, the firm that originally designed the S.S. United States. Late last year, a real estate developer hired the firm to help devise specific ideas for possible reuse.
Several of these programs are being priced out with shipbuilders and architects. They involve various mixes of hotels, restaurants, spas — “a little bit of everything,” Mr. Harper said.
One idea being considered: Put computer server farms on the lower decks near the waterline (where it’s cool) and invite tech companies to occupy the higher decks (a different kind of cool). “There is so much available space,” Mr. Harper said, “so many different things that could be done.” The ship has roughly 600,000 square feet of floor space.
The firm is also doing 3-D laser scans of the ship’s interior, to speed the design work. That’s an advancement, Mr. Harper noted, given that the original design documents are hand-drawn on vellum.
Admirers remain optimistic. Among them is John Quadrozzi, whose company happens to own a pier in Brooklyn big enough to accommodate an oceanliner. He says he would welcome the ship there, where docking costs would be considerably lower. The conservancy is considering the move, if the money can be raised.
Mr. Quadrozzi, who is in the concrete business, believes the S.S. United States has a bright future with creative types — the coders and designers, start-ups and technology firms that are looking for offbeat work spaces and are fond of words such as “disruption.”
“Talk about thinking outside the box,” Mr. Quadrozzi said. “This is really thinking outside the box.”
One prominent architect and developer who has held substantive discussions with the shipowners said, “I still have a positive energy.” The problem is that it is all “very unconventional,” said the developer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the process. “Is this real estate? Is this a ship?”
Asked why he doesn’t provide the money himself to help the conservancy maintain the ship, he said his company was simply too small. Equally significant, he said: “I don’t have enough of a Rolodex.” To make an unusual project like this work takes buy-in from politicians and big marquee tenants. “If President Obama picked up the phone and called five different people,” he said, “I’m sure one would bite.”
The S.S. United States was conceived with two purposes: to provide luxury passenger service to and from Europe, and to quickly convert into a superfast military transport, although that need never arose. Built partly with government funds, the ship represented a powerful expression of American postwar optimism and ambition.
Newspapers speculated on her secret top speed and wrote about her comings and goings like no airplane route gets written about. In the 1950s and ’60s, she was featured in a Disney movie, a Munsters movie, and a sequel to the Marilyn Monroe blockbuster “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” according to a conservancy history. Her twin red-white-and-blue stacks can be glimpsed in the opening of “West Side Story.”
In 1963, the ship carried the Mona Lisa home to France after a history-making exhibition of the painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
This is not the ship’s first crisis. An earlier owner auctioned off her midcentury fittings — dinner plates, finger bowls, the kidney shaped bar. In the 1990s, she was towed to Ukraine to be stripped of asbestos.
After the 2001 terror attacks trimmed Americans’ appetite for travel abroad, the cruise operator NCL Group considered refitting the S.S. United States as a cruise ship for service around Hawaii. But that never happened.
At the 11th hour, the conservancy in 2011 bought the ship from NCL with the help of a gift from Gerry Lenfest, a Philadelphia businessman.
The conservancy has explored many options for repurposing the ship. It discussed a hotel-and-event-space proposal in Miami, a mixed-use development and museum complex in Philadelphia, and redevelopment plans in Boston, Baltimore and Florida’s Port Canaveral. With a major cruise line, the conservancy explored the prospect of returning the ship to oceangoing service.
The preservationists even weighed the possibility, Ms. Gibbs said, of using the ship as an artificial reef — in other words, sinking it — in tandem with a museum and visitor’s center. But, she said, “I have spent over a decade trying to save the ship, not preside over her demolition.”
In recent days, as the board considered its dwindling finances, Hurricane Joaquin was threatening the East Coast, forcing the conservancy to take precautions to make sure their ship stayed safe. “A hurricane struck me as a perfect metaphor for what we were confronting,” Ms. Gibbs said.