The SS United States is to be evicted from her dock of 28 years. She has until September 2024 to find a new home. Credit: Wikicommons

Heritage evicted: SS United States ordered to leave berth by September

Author: Calum Brown

Published on:

Updated on:

America’s greatest flagship – SS United States – currently faces a fresh challenge in her struggle for survival. Following a tense court battle that epitomised the ship’s decade-long brawl for funding and repurposing, the liner now has until September 12, 2024, to find new lodgings – or face the welder’s torch

This week, 25 years ago, SS United States became listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of her “compelling national significance.” Roll the clock forward and she is now fighting for her life.

Following a court ruling that demands removal from her current lodgings by September 12, 2024, the future looks uncertain for America’s iconic ocean liner.

Once the fastest passenger ship in the world, capable of stripping paint from her bow and outrunning top-spec military submarines, the SS United States has struggled to find permanent lodgings as a static attraction following her final voyage on November 14, 1969.

America’s record-breaking cruise ship has languished at Pier 82 in Philadelphia for the last 28 years, with the dedicated conservation group duly paying daily rent of $750. The operators of Pier 82 – Penn Warehousing – took the non-profit SS United States Conservancy to court late last year over ‘unpaid dockage fees’ and sought legal force to have the iconic Blue-Riband holder evicted from her mooring.

More about SS United States

Penn Warehousing opted to play victim, claiming that SS United States had damaged their pier, the Conservancy had ignored the new daily rental for several years (up 100 per cent to $1,500 per day) and had become difficult and unreasonable to deal with. Therefore, the group owed $700,000 in arrears.

She may currently look a tad dishevelled, but SS United States remains as solid as she was on her famous sea trails. Credit: Charles Anderson/ SS United States Conservancy

The landlords consequently attempted to use these factors in an almost slanderous campaign seeking rid of the ship. Pithy tactics were employed to discredit the conservancy group, but while the motives of Penn Warehousing remained strikingly clear to those paying attention, the 53,300-ton liner was still in danger.

Lawyers for the SS United States Conservancy provided contradictory evidence, showcasing that Penn Warehousing had doubled the rent without consultation – going against the previously signed rental contract. The group also counteracted claims of pier damage as a thinly veiled attempt to secure eviction.

After hearing evidence and presiding over the case, U.S. District Court Senior Judge Anita Brody has now ruled that Penn Warehousing could not arbitrarily double the docking fee without notice, but also governed that SS United States must vacate the dock by September 12, 2024.

This ruling has prompted a scramble to secure a new location for the legendary American cruise liner, and to finance the intricate process of moving the 990-foot leviathan.

The once-rapid ocean liner now requires a new home before September 2024. Credit: Wikicommons

Survival: A very limited window

“While the Conservancy was vindicated in not being compelled to pay a large sum of back rent to the SS United States’ pier operator, the ruling makes clear this iconic American symbol is in peril,” said Conservancy President Susan Gibbs, the granddaughter of the ship’s famed designer, William Francis Gibbs.

“The judge’s decision gives us a very limited window to find a new home for the SS United States and raise the resources necessary to move the ship and keep her safe.”

This is a ruling that the SS United States conservancy has long feared. Despite their noble attempts to secure alternative locations for docking the former ocean liner, the economic and geopolitical climate has caused extreme difficulty.

Potential pier locations have been examined along the East Coast and within the Philadelphia area, while efforts to engage with federal and state officials continue at full speed – but the odds remain firmly stacked against the dedicated conservancy group.

“Relocating a ship the size of the SS United States is complex and costly. It requires funds for insurance, tugs, surveys, and dock preparations to ensure the ship’s safe passage to a new home,” Gibbs explained.

Since acquiring ownership of the SS United States in 2011, the Conservancy has feverishly pushed redevelopment plans under city officials and investors' noses alike. Even NCL (Norwegian Cruise Line) had previously gotten in on the act, announcing on April 14, 2003 that they had purchased the vessel and would be returning it to sea. That plan fell through due to spiralling costs and the liner was resold in 2009 – a similar story with anyone who has stepped in to help.

SS United States was the flagship for American engineering and style. To lose her would be a crime. Credit: SSUSC

Why is the SS United States so special?

Built by Virginia’s Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, the SS United States was the ultimate vision of design genius William Francis Gibbs; one of America’s most celebrated naval architects.

Constructed during the Cold War, the ship’s capabilities were kept top secret. Should war have broken out, the SS United States would quickly become the West’s secret weapon.

Her true nature was demonstrated on her maiden voyage in 1952, where she broke various Transatlantic records and claimed the title of the world’s fastest ocean liner – sitting at speeds over 35 knots. The ship’s sea trials supposedly witnessed an incredible 42 knots, which remains almost unheard of to this day. For comparison's sake, that’s 10 knots faster than Cunard’s current flagship: the QM2.

During the liner’s 17 years of operation, she maintained regular Atlantic service to France and England, with added port calls to Germany throughout the 1960s. The ship quickly became a symbol of Americana and an outrageous testament to mankind’s engineering prowess, delivering world leaders, celebrities, business executives, political figures and everyday heroes safely and in decadent style.

The SS United States easing into Pier 86 without the assistance of tugs, due to a tugboat strike. Not that she needed them anyway... Photo courtesy of Charles Anderson/SS United States Conservancy

However, times changed. As airplane travel became more feasible and affordable, ships once deemed profitable became glorified money pits. Cunard ditched their original RMS Queen Mary, while others dispatched once-grand liners to the breakers' yard.

SS United States avoided the death penalty, but courtesy of increased costs and declining government subsidies, her cruises were cancelled and her unwitting final passengers cleared the gangway for the final time in November 1969. The United States government quickly acquired the all-but abandoned ship, then sold her to a real estate developer in 1980, before the fixtures and fittings were sold at auction.

America's cutting-edge liner was towed to Ukraine for the removal of her asbestos components in the 1990s, and has sat in Philadelphia with a revolving series of owners ever since.

Redevelopment plans for the SS United States have now been laid out - but who will bite? Credit: SSUCC

Is there hope for SS United States?

The SS United States Conservancy released a full redevelopment plan in November 2023, with input from RXR – a New York-based real estate development firm – and MCR, a hotel management company. The plans outlined the potential for turning the vessel into a hotel, museum and mixed-use business centre. Just as California opted to employ the ex-Cunard RMS Queen Mary back in 1967.

As the interior fittings have already been stripped from the liner, the Conservancy explained that redevelopment plans can be adapted to any suitable project or port city. Although aesthetics require a bit of work, despite her 72-year exposure to the elements, she remains solid; courtesy of her incredible build quality and all-American design.

Problem is, no progress or advancements can be made until a permanent home for the SS United States is secured. And, now, the clock is very much ticking.

The SS United States situation. American hypocrisy at its' finest. Credit: Shutterstock/RRM
Most recent articles

About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.