Safe From the Scrapyard? S.S. United States Purchased by Conservancy

February 1, 2011

(7:15 p.m. EST) -- The venerable ocean liner S.S. United States has moved one step farther from the scrapyard today. The S.S. United States Conservancy, a non-profit organization "dedicated to protecting, revitalizing and promoting America's flagship," has acquired the title to the ship, thanks to a grant from the Lenfest Foundation.

As we reported last July, Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. Gerry Lenfest agreed to contribute up to $5.8 million to purchase the ship from its owner Norwegian Cruise Line and maintain it for up to 20 months. S.S. United States had been slowly oxidizing at a Philadelphia dock since 1996, and was very nearly sent to the scrapyard.

In a statement on the Conservancy's Web site, board president Susan Gibbs says, "Now that we have secured [the] title, we will accelerate our efforts to redevelop the nation's flagship as a multi-purpose waterfront destination with dynamic hotel, retail, educational and museum offerings." The group is looking for a partner to assist with the project, which could cost several hundred million dollars, and notes that New York, Philadelphia and Miami have expressed interest in hosting the vessel.

The sale was held up due to concerns from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over toxic PCBs on the ship, reports the Wall Street Journal. However, the Conservancy agreed to comply with all regulations concerning PCBs, satisfying the EPA and allowing the sale to move forward.

Built in 1952, the construction of S.S. United States was heavily subsidized by the U.S. government, which wanted the option to use the Big U, as it's known to fans, as a military transport vessel when it wasn't sailing transatlantic pleasure cruises for United States Lines. An undeniable speed demon, the ship still holds the westbound transatlantic speed record, crossing the pond in some 3 days and 10 hours on its maiden voyage in 1952. Its top speed was believed to be in excess of 36 knots (over 40 miles per hour). Onboard, the ship reflected the golden age of ocean liners -- it was divided into three distinct "classes" -- first, cabin and tourist -- each with their own dining rooms and lounges. Passengers -- including movie stars (John Wayne), heads of state (Harry Truman) and immigrants -- could mix in the gymnasium and pool.

--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor

Photo courtesy of Big Ship Films, LLC