"Letting the S.S. United States go to the breakers would be like letting the Statue of Liberty be melted down and turned into pennies. Unthinkable."
Those are the words of an anonymous supporter who recently donated a quarter million dollars towards the conservation efforts behind the S.S. United States, docked in South Philadelphia for almost two decades. Currently out of commission and stripped of its midcentury fineries, the historic ocean liner still holds the record as the fastest passenger ship ever built.
As one of the last true ocean liners, passenger ships designed to traverse the choppy seas of intercontinental travel, the S.S. United States ceased operation in 1969 when air travel and leisurely cruise ships replaced the need speedy transatlantic crossings.
At the time, the S.S. United States was unprecedented both in its speed and its panache. Inspired by the great ocean liners of the Gilded Age combined with the modern technology of its time, you might call the S.S. United States the world's last Titanic. Only her legacy didn't enter the history books with a bang, but with a slow decline into irrelevance.
For decades she idled in Norfolk and Philadelphia as her fittings, furnishings, and mechanics were stripped for restaurants and museums.
Her arrival in Philadelphia gave way to urban legends and even inspired an episode of Cold Case. For years, she was simply referred to as "the big ship by IKEA," as the furniture store even installed a massive picture window in its cafe from which to view the massive, rusting hulk.
The campaign that finally recognized this diamond in the rough began in 2009. As Philadelphia enjoyed a rebirth of its own in the early 21st Century, residents began taking another look at our deteriorating assets, and the S.S. United States happened to be one of our most visible.
H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest has been the liner's most vocal advocate, originally pledging a $300,000 grant towards the S.S. United States Conservancy in 2009. The efforts of the Conservancy helped keep the ship stay afloat for a few years, but the hefty docking price of $60,000 a month always whispered quietly into the ears of even the most hopeful.
Proposals ranged from a casino or hotel here in Philadelphia, to attractions in New York or Miami. Quizzically, nothing seemed to stick. Given that Long Beach can support the Queen Mary, it's mind boggling that Manhattan wouldn't be jumping at such an opportunity for its densely packed ports.
A year ago, her fate seemed sealed: she would be sold for scrap. The Conservancy had seemingly explored every possible opportunity, even the notion of filling her with computer servers as a means to simply make rent. That's when they went viral with a plea to save the ship, and that's when magic happened. By October of 2015, the Conservancy had raised $100,000. By this month, that number jumped to $600,000.
While room remains for pessimism, the outpouring of international support is new, and hopeful. The $600,000 will help keep her afloat in Philadelphia or relocated to a port with more potential within the next year. It would be wonderful if a fitting place could be found for the S.S. United State in Philadelphia, but losing the ship to another city isn't Philadelphia's loss. The S.S. United States is America's ocean liner, the World's last Titanic, and a symbol of International innovation and grit. When you think of the S.S. United States as a symbol of our past, it's easy to understand support spanning the globe. She's the World's treasure.
Whether she sits in South Philadelphia as eye candy for Instagrammers, serves as a museum to nautical knowhow in Norfolk, or as a lavish hotel in New York or Miami, one thing is certain, one thing the outpouring of international support proves: The S.S. United States deserves to stay afloat.
SE Nehalem Street, 1940
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