Historic ship article and photo feature - SS United States - A Visit To The SS United States
The SS United States is indisputably a great ship. She remains the fastest ocean liner every built, capturing the internationally coveted Blue Riband on her first transatlantic crossing by a substantial margin. Even after she was withdrawn from service in 1969, she has been persistently the topic of conversation in maritime circles as various plans for her future were unveiled and then sadly evaporated. Consequently, when an opportunity to go aboard this legendary ship arose, I immediately jumped at it.
America's flagship, the SS United States, is berthed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her current home is not near Philadelphia's historic sites but rather at a commercial pier complex further along the Delaware River. Her neighbors across the street are an Ikea and several fast food restaurants.
The United States is not generally open to the public. Therefore, we met with the people from the SS United States Conservancy, the current owners of the ship, in the parking lot of the Ikea. They then shepherded us through the port security to the ship.
The first emotion many people experience on seeing the ship is one of sadness. There are large patches of paint peeling away from the hull making an almost psychedelic design of swirls. In addition, there is rusty machinery, bent or missing railings and even grass growing where some of the lifeboat davits once stood. It would be sad to see any ship in such a state. That one so historically important should have come to this is not only sad but shameful.
But after looking at the ship for awhile, you see that the deterioration is largely cosmetic. The ship maintains her strong, purposeful lines. She is stately. Unlike most modern cruise ships and indeed, some ocean liners, there is no frivolity about the United States. Her expression is serious, intent on accomplishing her purpose of crossing the ocean with speed. That objective is echoed in her long low lines and the knife like edge of her prow. She is javelin-like, lean and aerodynamic. All this still emerges from beneath the fading paint. This remains a proud ship.
Inside, the ship has been stripped bare. It is like going into a building that is awaiting renovation. It is dusty like a construction site. The only light comes from the windows on either side of the ship and from the flashlights that visitors must carry.
All of the decoration is gone as is all the furniture and furnishings. The only exception we encountered was in the Tourist Class Bar where a lone vinyl covered bar stool attached to the remains of the bar.
The interior walls too are gone. What remains is the structural steel bulkheads and the framework that once held the composite walls that once divided the cabins and public spaces. As a result, except where there is machinery or ducts in the way, you can see from one side of the ship to the other.
All that remains of the suites where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, ex-President Truman and various members of Hollywood royalty once stayed are metal outlines on the floor. These define the spaces that were the bedrooms, the bathrooms and the space where you stored your steamer trunks.
Along the same lines, the First Class Dining Room is empty. Looking down from the balcony where musicians once entertained the diners, the cavernous room is reminiscent in shape of the Britannia Restaurant on Queen Mary 2 with a large multi-deck high center section bounded by one-deck high sections on either side. But you must use your imagination here to bring the scene to life as the only color in this empty space is the pale yellow of the primer on the steel walls.
Seemingly, it would be a Herculean task to restore the interior of the ship to what it was like when the ship was in service. However, because the original interior has been removed, this vast space could take on a new life in which it is put to new purposes. Think of historic buildings such as New York's Grand Central Station and Washington's Union Station that have become vital parts of their communities not by attempting to freeze them in time but via tasteful renovations that allowed their space to be used in new ways. When the future possibilities are considered, viewing the interior becomes exciting rather than tragic.
Indeed, walking around the United States, I found myself thinking less about what had occurred in these spaces in the past than about what could occur here in the future. Without doubt, the optimal future would be for a renovated SS United States to take to the seas once again. It would not be impossible. However, others have spent their time and fortunes in such a pursuit only to find it a dream too far.
A more likely scenario is to develop the ship as some sort of land-based facility. There are the examples of the Queen Mary in California and the SS Rotterdam in the Netherlands. But the United States need not adhere to those models. In the last half century, we have become quite good at thinking up new uses for old buildings (e.g., the Tate Modern in London; the Musee d'Orsay in Paris), the same creativity could be used here.
Outside on the pier again, I was reminded again of the magnificence of this vessel. Looking up, the towering oversized funnels still give off an aura of power. However, where they were once bright red, they are now faded pink. Clearly, there is much to be done if the United States is to be saved. The only question is whether the world's fastest ship has the time to outrun the breakers.