"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 $122,167 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 of cruise industry executive Jim Pollin who donated an initial $120,000 in 2014, followed by a 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.
Update: February 4, 2016
Together with the SS United States Conservancy, Crystal today announced it will save “America’s Flagship,” the SS United States, and embark on the enormous undertaking of bringing the ship into compliance with the latest standards, and returning her to oceangoing service. During the announcement, made at a press conference at the Manhattan Cruise Terminal in New York City, Crystal also committed to covering all costs associated with preserving the ship while undertaking a technical feasibility study, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2016.
“The prospect of revitalizing the SS United States and reestablishing her as ‘America’s Flagship’ once again is a thrilling one. It will be a very challenging undertaking, but we are determined to apply the dedication and innovation that has always been the ship’s hallmark,” says Crystal President and CEO Edie Rodriguez. “We are honored to work with the SS United States Conservancy and government agencies in exploring the technical feasibility study so we can ultimately embark on the journey of transforming her into a sophisticated luxury cruise liner for the modern era.”
“Crystal’s ambitious vision for the SS United States will ensure our nation’s flagship is once again a global ambassador for the highest standards of American innovation, quality and design,” said Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy and granddaughter of the ship’s designer, William Francis Gibbs. We are thrilled that the SS United States is now poised to make a triumphant return to sea and that the ship’s historical legacy will continue to intrigue and inspire a new generation.”
In order to meet modern demands and be in full regulatory compliance, the SS United States will have to be extensively re-built to meet over 60 years of new maritime rules and shipbuilding practices. The modern United States by Crystal Cruises will be transformed into an 800-guest-capacity vessel, featuring 400 luxurious suites measuring about 350 square feet with dining, entertainment, spa and other luxury guest amenities that are true to the ship’s storied history. Features of the original SS United States such as the Promenade and Navajo Lounge will be retained, while new engines and sophisticated marine technology will be installed to maintain her title as the fastest cruise vessel in the world.
Adds Rodriguez: “It is truly a privilege for the world’s most awarded luxury cruise line to be entrusted with the opportunity of restoring a ship that served as a symbol of patriotism and maritime supremacy and bring her into the modern day, while also giving guests a taste of a bygone era of luxury travel.”
Crystal will be examining exciting new itineraries for the 60,000-gross-ton United States by Crystal Cruises including not only the traditional transatlantic voyages from New York City, but cruises from key U.S. ports as well as international voyages around the globe which are a signature offering of Crystal and part of the line’s “World Cruise.”
The epitome of American post-war innovation and design, the SS United States was launched in 1952 and captured the transatlantic speed record on her maiden voyage – a record to this day that still stands. She remains the largest passenger ship ever designed and built in America. Before her retirement in 1969, the SS United States was the most glamorous and elegant ship in the world, having transported four U.S. presidents, international royalty, many of Hollywood’s “golden era” celebrities, as well as a million passengers. While the ship captivated travelers with its features and elegance, the ship’s origin was equally intriguing. She was designed as part of a top-secret Pentagon program during the Cold War, which stipulated it could be quickly converted from a luxury liner into a naval troopship in the event of a war, carrying 15,000 troops with a 240,000 shaft horsepower propulsion plant capable of traveling 10,000 nautical miles – almost half way around the globe – without refueling.
In October 2015, the SS United States Conservancy’s Board of Directors announced that the persistent challenge of covering the vessel’s monthly expenses had compelled them to engage a ship broker to explore the potential sale of the ship to be responsibly recycled. This news resulted in an outpouring of public support worldwide and led to the Conservancy raising additional funds which enabled the organization to continue its preservation efforts and pursue negotiations with potential investors and partners.
“The Conservancy could never have reached this momentous milestone without the lifeline provided by our supporters from across the country and around the world. Thousands responded to our SOS last October and they refused to give up the fight for America’s Flagship,” continued Gibbs.
To facilitate the complex technical feasibility study and to ensure a smooth execution of the project, Crystal has appointed retired U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Tim Sullivan to build and lead a team with a wide range of cruise line technical, legal and regulatory expertise. With 36 years of active service, Admiral Sullivan has extensive experience in ship operations as a Commanding Officer of numerous Coast Guard cutters, and over the years has engaged in high level of interaction with a myriad of U.S. government agencies and international regulatory entities.
“Tim’s integrity and leadership will help ensure the feasibility study is conducted with appropriately wide consultation, and rigorous adherence to both safety and environmental awareness,” said Rodriguez.
The Conservancy will continue to expand its curatorial and archival collections as it advances its mission of educating the public about the SS United States’ history. The organization will work with Crystal to establish shipboard displays and other educational programs. Planning is also underway for a land-based museum dedicated to preserving the legacy of America’s Flagship along with broader design, innovation, and discovery themes. The museum will feature a wide range of original artifacts and historic components from the ship’s heyday.
Check back for updates as the story of the SS United States continues.