IT WAS THE fastest, most luxurious ocean liner of its day, and whisked the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Coco Chanel, Marlon Brando and four US presidents across the Atlantic.
But now the SS United States sits derelict in a Philadelphia dock as a conservation group makes an urgent appeal for funding to save it from the scrap yard by the end of the month.
Moored on the Delaware River opposite an Ikea store, its paintwork is peeling, its funnels discolored by the sun. Footsteps echo in the cavernous interior, stripped long ago of the vestiges of the vessel’s golden past.
On its maiden voyage on July 3, 1952 the 301-metre ocean liner crossed the Atlantic in a record three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes.
The record still holds.
A marvel in elegance and technology, it was designed to be transformed rapidly – if the Cold War escalated – into a troop carrier and was therefore funded largely by the US government.
Its naval architect, William Francis Gibbs, also proclaimed it fire resistant thanks to its heavy use of aluminum.
A million passengers, Hollywood stars, politicians, industrialists and immigrants travelled the SS United States between America and Europe.
On board were three orchestras, a ballroom, two cinemas, 20 elevators and a swimming pool.
“Everybody that was a major contributor in their field, they were here,” remembers 82-year-old Joe Rota, who went from elevator operator to bell boy to onboard photographer.
“The technology, the comfort, the speed, the food, everything was so perfect. We never had a breakdown, we were never late,” he said, recalling memories of Prince Rainier, Brando, US president Harry Truman and Salvador Dali.
Mona Lisa had a cabin
The Mona Lisa was also a passenger, coming home from an exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington.
She had her own cabin, outside which were placed size-15 shoes for polishing.
The idea apparently was to make people think the painting was being protected by a very large man also traveling inside the cabin.
But air travel quickly sounded the death knell for ocean liners and the SS United States was decommissioned on November 11, 1969 after 400 voyages. The ship, which could carry 2,000 passengers serviced by 1,000 staff, was no longer cost effective.
It was bought several times with various ideas of turning it into a casino, a cruise liner or a hospital ship, but nothing came of these proposals.
In 1984, its furniture and what remained inside were sold at auction. Then in 2011 it was bought by the non-profit SS United States Conservancy, whose director Susan Gibbs is none other than granddaughter of its architect.
The organisation is urgently appealing for donors and investors, in an effort to give the ocean liner a future it deserves such as a hotel, floating apartments, office space or a museum.
“It’s like an horizontal skyscraper. It’s exactly the height of the Chrysler building,” said Gibbs.
She is making particular overtures to technology companies in a nod to its past as a marvel of technology.
Close to saving her
She emphasised the available floor space, up to 500,000 square feet, and insists the ship is structurally very sound.
Gibbs said discussions are underway for what could be a “very innovative contemporary use of the spaces” and refers to the second life enjoyed by other liners, such as the Queen Mary and the Rotterdam.
“It could be extraordinary. Fingers crossed,” she says.
But while waiting for projects to come to fruition, the association has to pay $60,000 a month to dock the ship.
Donations are coming in from all 50 states in America and from 36 countries, but the cost is unsustainable.
“We’ve never been closer to saving the SS United States, and we’ve never been closer to losing her,” said Gibbs.
The board of directors announced recently their intention to sell the ship to the scrapyard if no new investors or donors come forward by the end of October.
“We need to have a game changing development,” said Gibbs. An appeal has also been made to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“It was the most beautiful ship in the world,” said Rota, still believing it can be rescued.
“Such an American symbol.”