Saturday, February 12, 2011

S.S. United States saved from the blowtorch, for now.

This is old news, and I've been meaning to post about it for about two weeks, but life has been hectic. Those two jauntily raked red, white, and blue funnels you see in the photo above (click to enlarge), taken during a visit to Philadelphia in 2006, belong to the S.S. United States, the sleekest, fastest transatlantic passenger liner ever. Launched in 1952, as the Korean War raged and the Cold War between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. grew more frigid, she was a joint venture between her commercial operator, United States Lines, and the U.S. Navy, which funded the majority of her construction cost and held the right, in the event she was needed, to take her for use as a high speed, high capacity troopship or hospital ship.

Wikimedia Commons

On her maiden Atlantic voyage, the "Big U", as she came to be known, set new speed records for both the east and west bound crossings. She thereby claimed the Blue Riband, awarded to the fastest liner on the transatlantic route. She still held it when she was retired from service in 1969, and it retired with her, as the age of regular transatlantic passenger ship service had ended. Since then, she has been idle, for a time at Newport News, Virginia, where she was built; later at Philadelphia. Norwegian Cruise Lines bought her and planned to convert her to cruising, but turning an ocean thoroughbred into a carriage horse is tricky. As years passed and her condition deteriorated, it seemed more and more likely she would go for scrap. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in "Old Ironsides", his impassioned poem protesting a plan to break up the frigate Constitution: "The harpies of the shore shall pluck/ The eagle of the sea."

A group of people determined not to allow this to happen formed the S.S. United States Conservancy to raise funds for the ship's restoration and preservation, and to publicize her plight. Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of William Francis Gibbs, principal designer of the ship, serves as its president. In 1999, a predecessor organization to the Conservancy succeeded in having the ship listed in the National Register of Historic Places; nevertheless, this did not guarantee that it would be preserved.

Fortunately, with funds pledged by Philadelphia philanthropist H.L. "Gerry" Lenfest, the Conservancy has purchased the ship as of the first of this month, and has sufficient funds to maintain her for twenty months. The Conservancy must also find a permanent home for the "Big U", with New York in the running, along with Philadelphia and Miami. Naturally, I'm hoping she returns to New York, her home port.