Keeping Hope Afloat for Iconic American Ship

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By Daniel A. Medina

She served presidents and countless icons of another age. In her heyday, she served both as a luxury ocean liner and as a convertible troop ship.

But, now docked at South Philadelphia's Pier 78 in the Delaware River, the once-grand SS United States — a ship longer than the Titanic — is just a shell of her former self.

Rust eats away at the vessel’s façade, which once dazzled crowds as it blazed into harbors across the world.

Inside, the ship's grand ballroom, where the likes of Salvador Dali and Marlon Brando were once regulars, is in structural decay.

Tied to the pier for nearly two decades, the SS United States is crumbling and time is running out to save her, according to Susan Gibbs, executive director of the S.S. United States Conservancy, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that owns the ship.

The front deck of the SS United States as it sits idly at a Philadelphia pier.NBC News

“Her carrying costs here at this berth in Philadelphia are daunting,” said Gibbs, who added that maintenance costs come to $60,000 per month. “We’ve been struggling to meet those bills.”

Earlier this month, the conservancy announced that it would sell the ship to a recycler by the 31st if it did not receive substantial cash donations to save the vessel. Gibbs refused to say how much money is needed.

According to public tax documents, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, donations for the SS United States dropped 95 percent in two years, from roughly $4.2 million in 2011 to just $213,000 in 2013, the latest year for which figures are available.

Gibbs, whose grandfather designed the ship more than half a century ago, has spearheaded the effort to make up that deficit and save the ocean liner. She is both an admirer and a historian of the ship and is quick to point out its feats: It still holds the record for fastest transatlantic passenger liner voyage — set in 1952 — and is the largest ship ever made entirely in the United States.

"This ship is a soaring national symbol," said Gibbs. 'She blazed onto the scene after World War II and perfectly personified the moment the country was in."

Joe Rota remembers that moment well. He worked on the ship as a young 20-year-old photographer.

For Rota, who had grown up in a small town in New Jersey, entering the grand ballroom for the first time was like walking into "Alice in Wonderland," he said.

He photographed everyone from President Harry Truman to actress and royal Grace Kelly — memories, he said, that for him overshadow the dilapidated state the forgotten ship now finds itself in.

"This [ship] is a part of our history," said Rota. "It would just be so tragic if the nation turned its back on this extraordinary triumph."

It is not clear how the SS United States could continue to function even if the conservancy received the funds to stave off its untimely death. Gibbs has proposed to investors its potential as a commercial space, something that would require investors to jump on board. Plans for a hotel were drafted but fell through.

But simply saving the ship in the coming weeks is first priority, said Gibbs.

For her and for all those who remember the ship in better times, at a time when historical relics are often replaced by modern conveniences, the SS United States is worth staying afloat.