"But he's got high hopes, he's got high hopes
He's got high apple pie, in the sky hopes"
Those lyrics are from a song called "High Hopes" which was made popular by Frank Sinatra in the late 1950's. The song describes a number of scenarios where impossible odds are seemingly overcome through of a combination of positive attitude and perseverance.
During 1959, the year that song first became popular, the passenger liner SS United States - the flagship of the United States Lines - had been in service for seven years and was carrying thousands of passengers a week across the Atlantic in comfort and luxury.
At 990 feet in length, the SS United States was a technical marvel designed by legendary marine architect, William Francis Gibbs and when she entered service in 1952 she was the pride of the American merchant fleet. Her first passage from Ambrose Lighthouse to Bishops Rock smashed the record for fastest crossing of the Atlantic in 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes.
It has been more than 55 years since "High Hopes" first became a hit and while the song has faded from the public's memory and become part of a forgotten past, amazingly the SS United States is very much a part of the here and now.
For the past 18 years the once famous liner has been tied up at Pier 84 in South Philadelphia looking for a new life. The fact that a 53,000 ton ship built over 60 years ago is still around and is the centerpiece of several proposals for re-purposing the ship as a mixed-use permanently moored vessel on the New York waterfront is truly amazing and the direct result of the same combination of positive attitude and perseverance highlighted in the song.
Unfortunately, positive attitude and perseverance can only take a project so far. For the resurrection of the SS United States to come to fruition it will take millions of dollars of investment money and the cooperation of state and local authorities.
According to the SS United States Conservancy, the group that currently owns the SS United States, two detailed proposals have recently been submitted to New York City officials and they are now in talks regarding if and how next steps can emerge.
But time is short and it remains to be seen whether the Conservancy will be able to raise enough money to see their "high hopes" become reality.
In late September, the Conservancy announced that it will need to make a determination about the ship's future by the end of the month unless resources are found in short order to help cover the vessel's ongoing maintenance costs. Specifically, that means they will need to determine whether to sell or scrap the historic ship, unless they have entered into a funded option with a developer or have succeeded in attracting major new philanthropic support.
"We need someone with vision to step in and save the United States. We've made great strides in recent months, but what we need now is more time. This is an opportunity for a true hero to come forward and ensure the great potential of this project is realized. Discussions are underway with city and state officials to confirm that our plans meet regulatory guidelines and provide significant economic benefits, but the clock is ticking," said the Conservancy's Executive Director Susan Gibbs.
The ship has faced its end several times before. Most recently in 2011, the SS United States was just days away from being scrapped when a major gift to the Conservancy helped the grassroots organization purchase the vessel.
The Conservancy spends more than $60,000 per month to pay for the ship's dockage, insurance and maintenance costs at her current pier in Philadelphia. The organization is funded by private donations and has not received any government support.
On September 30th, the Conservancy announced that they had made progress and were within $2,072 from reaching a goal that would generate a matching fund grant of $100,000 from Jim Pollin who had donated $120,000 to the Conservancy this past June. At the time of that donation, Pollin had pledged to donate an additional $100,000 if the Conservancy succeeded in matching that amount through its fundraising efforts.
Then just this week the Conservancy announced that it had raised $122,165 from donors in 44 states in 17 countries in amounts spanning one dollar to ten thousand. In response, Jim Pollin upped the ante: "Our nation's flagship isn't just an historic vessel," Pollin said. "It also represents the people of a great and determined nation that once again have demonstrated they can rise to any challenge. In response to the generosity of so many supporters of the SS United States, I am proud to match their recent contributions with an additional donation of $120,000 to save this enduring symbol of our country."
The good news is that thanks to this fundraising success, the ship is safe for now. But the situation remains critical, and as the Conservancy continues to negotiate with New York developers, its hopes remain high that the vessel will soon be heading into drydock in anticipation of a star-spangled journey to a new port of call.
Update: December 15, 2014
On December 15 2014, the Conservancy announced that it had entered into a preliminary agreement in support of the redevelopment of the SS United States. The group said that negotiations had been underway for some time, and planning will continue with a variety of stakeholders. While further due diligence is conducted, the Conservancy will receive financial support to cover the vessel’s core carrying costs for at least an additional three months.
In the announcement, the Conservancy said that "...the project remains at an early and delicate phase, but we wanted to update our supporters about this encouraging development. As you can appreciate, the ship’s potential redevelopment represents a multifaceted engineering, real estate, and curatorial undertaking that will take considerable time to advance. Many challenges must still be overcome. However, we are fortunate that our new partners are very well equipped to handle this unique project’s scope and scale, and the Conservancy looks forward to working closely with them in the months to come.
Because negotiations are advancing on a confidential basis, we are unable to offer further specifics at this time. We will share additional information as soon as we possibly can. Again, the Conservancy views this as a very positive development which, while still in its initial stages, gives us renewed hope that we can, at long last, Save the United States.
We have reached this moment because so many of you have helped us. You are the real heroes of this effort. We are particularly grateful to Gerry Lenfest, whose transformative contributions enabled the Conservancy to take title to the SS United States in 2011, and who has been a steadfast supporter of our efforts. We also extend our heartfelt gratitude to Jim Pollin. Without his leadership gift and challenge grant to the Conservancy last summer – and without such a generous response from far and wide to Jim’s call – we would never have achieved this milestone."
Update: February 9, 2015
On February 9, 2015, the Conservancy announced that an anonymous donor had donated an additional $250,000. The group said the donor was was inspired by the generosity and passion exhibited by cruise industry executive Jim Pollin who donated an initial $120,000, followed by a generous challenge grant. Supporters from across the country and around the world answered Pollin’s call to action by donating $120,000, prompting Pollin to match this amount.
“Jim’s donations have now yielded more than half a million dollars for America’s Flagship,” said Conservancy executive director, Susan Gibbs. “This new major donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, is helping us build on the momentum of our encouraging redevelopment agreement announced in December. Feasibility studies for the ship’s conversion are ongoing, and many design and engineering challenges must still be overcome. However, this extraordinarily generous donation provides real wind at the sails of our efforts.”
According to the group, the funds from the new gift will be used in the near-term for advancing various curatorial programs, including planning for the SS United States Museum of Design and Discovery. Preliminary designs for the museum include restoring key areas of the ship to create innovative and immersive experiences for visitors.
“While our new development partners continue their due diligence and planning for the repurposing of the SS United States, the Conservancy will use this generous donation to jump-start the exciting process of developing a world-class museum. We will also continue our global search and cataloging of original artifacts, artwork and ephemera from the vessel, as well as compiling and digitizing passenger and crew records, among other important projects,” Gibbs explained.
Check back for updates as the story of the SS United States continues.