February 4, 2016
(12:30 p.m. EST) -- Crystal Cruises has signed a purchase option to restore the S.S. United States, a historic ocean liner that has been out of commission for 47 years, and bring it back into service.
The option commits Crystal to cover the costs of preserving the ship while undertaking a technical feasibility study, expected to be completed by the end of 2016; that cost has been estimated at $60,000 a month, according to the New York Times. Retired U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Tim Sullivan will lead the team effort.
Crystal plans to turn S.S. United States into an 800-passenger luxury liner with 400 suites that measure 350 square feet. Features of the original ship, such as the Promenade and Navajo Lounge, will be retained, even as the vessel's mechanics are overhauled and modernized.
"The prospect of revitalizing the S.S. United States and reestablishing her as 'America's Flagship' once again is a thrilling one. It will be a very challenging undertaking, but we are determined to apply the dedication and innovation that has always been the ship's hallmark," Crystal President and CEO Edie Rodriguez said in a press release.
"We are honored to work with the S.S. United States Conservancy and government agencies in exploring the technical feasibility study so we can ultimately embark on the journey of transforming her into a sophisticated luxury cruise liner for the modern era."
To transform S.S. United States -- at one time, the most powerful vessel in the world, setting a record, which still stands, for the fastest transatlantic crossing in 1952 -- would cost between $700 million to $800 million, Rodriguez told the Times.
It's been docked on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, where you can easily see it from the interstate, since 1996. The S.S. United States Preservation Society has owned the 2,000-passenger vessel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, since 2011; before that, it was owned by Norwegian Cruise Line.
Known as "the Big U" and "America's Flagship," S.S. United States has a history that harks back to the golden age of ocean liners. The ship is 590 feet long, about five city blocks, and is longer than the Titanic was. To prevent it from burning, no wood was used in its construction.
The luxury ship had many famous passengers during its time at sea, including four U.S. presidents (Bill Clinton sailed it when he went to study at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar) and a Who's Who of Old Hollywood: Marlon Brando, Coco Chanel, Gary Cooper, Walt Disney, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne and Bob Hope. Royalty onboard included Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Almost as intriguing as the passenger manifest is the ship's origin story. Conceived as part of a top-secret Pentagon project during the Cold War, United States was designed to be converted into a war ship and carry 15,000 troops halfway around the world without refueling, if needed.
The project is an interesting one for Crystal, which has announced significant expansion since it was acquired by Genting Hong Kong in March 2015. Since then, the line has added a yacht with a mini-submarine, is starting a river cruise line and private jet service, and will build three new luxury ships.
The Conservancy hired a broker to sell the ship in October 2015, after its Board of Directors announced that it could no longer afford the monthly expenses. With Crystal taking over, the Conservancy will stay active developing the archives and planning a land-based museum about the ship.
"Crystal's ambitious vision for the S.S. United States will ensure our nation's flagship is once again a global ambassador for the highest standards of American innovation, quality and design," said Susan Gibbs, executive director of the S.S. United States Conservancy and granddaughter of the ship's designer, William Francis Gibbs. "We are thrilled that the S.S. United States is now poised to make a triumphant return to sea and that the ship's historical legacy will continue to intrigue and inspire a new generation."
--By Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor