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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Plans for SS United States More Questions than Answers

On Thursday, February 4th, the SS United States Conservancy stunned the preservationist community by announcing that the much-ballyhooed plans for the ship were not to redevelop it as a static public attraction in New York as rumored, but in fact that a cruise line was interested in purchasing it for return to revenue service!

The liner, which holds the transatlantic speed record, was laid up in 1969 and has been idle ever since, her mid-century interiors long since stripped away and sold at auction.  For the past 20 years, she has been berthed in south Philadelphia, where drivers on I-95 and the Walt Whitman Bridge glimpse at her fading red-white-and blue smokestacks.

A a press conference held on Pier 88 in New York (long home of the storied Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (French Line)), Crystal Cruises, a luxury brand owned by Hong Kong-based Genting Group, announced they had agreed to front the ship’s $60,000-per-month dockage fees until the end of the year whilst they determine if renovating her further use is even feasible. A new propulsion system would have to be provided ( Crystal’s president asserted she would still be the fastest out there) and there is concern about contaminants lurking in her Cold-War-era bowels.

The renovated ship would carry about 800 passengers, far fewer than she was designed to accommodate. Her interiors are a veritable clean slate: all non-structural materials were gutted in the 1980s in the Ukraine.  Her designer’s preoccupation with fire meant asbestos and other hazardous substances were used in abundance.  A promotional video by the cruise line indicated her superstructure would be expanded to accommodate modern passenger expectations like stateroom balconies. Certain features like the enclosed promenade decks and the cozy Navajo Lounge would be maintained or recreated, and one would assume that a nod to her history would be evident throughout.
Screen shot of artist's rendering of the SS United States as proposed Crystal Cruise Lines vessel from Feb. 2016 press conference
Screen shot of artist’s rendering of the SS United States as proposed Crystal Cruise Lines vessel from Feb. 2016 press conference
My feelings are mixed:  While of course a ship is built to go to sea, this vessel was designed and laid down for a specific route and market that was lost to the jet airplane many  years ago.  To make her “work” as a modern cruise vessel, she will have to be modified almost beyond recognition, and will still be a compromise at best.  There is precedent, the SS France, of similar vintage, enjoyed 20 additional years of life as the cruise ship Norway, but not without two additional decks and much updating.

Which brings up my second concern: Genting also owns Norwegian Cruise Line which operated the Norway. After a boiler explosion rendered her inoperable, her owners claimed she was being brought to Asia for repairs, but in fact were accused of duping the German government when their real intention was to scrap her.  Under the Basel Convention, she would not be permitted to leave the EU without a plan in place to remove the asbestos and other hazards present throughout her interiors.  NCL actually purchased the United States once before with very similar intentions to the ones being proposed now, but determined it was not feasible.  It remains to be explained what is different this time.

Even if they are successful, I and the others who paid to keep her alive these recent years are still likely to be short-changed.  As a hotel and museum, she would have been accessible to millions of people including those who appreciate her history.  Instead she will become a playground for the super-rich, and the rest of us will be left waving from the shore.


  1. Saw you love "Traveling Mercies" by Ann Lamott. So do I.
    Have you read her book "Bird by Bird"? If you love to write, and it is obvious you do, you will find this book not only helpful but hilarious.
    Cheers, from a fellow blogger

    1. Yes I did and loved it. I should read it again as National Novel Writing Month is about to begin!