Iconic Ocean Liner SS United States Ordered to Leave Berth by September

SS United States
Liner United States after 28 years in Philadelphia must leave her berth in three months (SS United States Conservancy)

Published Jun 14, 2024 7:57 PM by The Maritime Executive


The iconic ocean liner ss United States is facing a new challenge in the more than decade-long struggle to repurpose the once fastest passenger ship in the world for a new use as a static attraction. The ship has been ordered to vacate from Pier 82 in Philadelphia by September 12, 2024, prompting the non-profit that owns the ship to scramble to find a new location and cover the costs of moving the nearly 1,000-foot-long vessel. In an odd quirk of fate, the decision came 25 years to the day after the ss United States was listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of her “compelling national significance.” 

SS United States Conservancy had been fighting in court with Penn Warehousing operator of the Philadelphia pier where the vessel has languished for the past 28 years managed by a caretaker. U.S. District Court Senior Judge Anita Brody ruled today that the landlord could not arbitrarily double dockage fees without notice as the non-profit claimed it had done, but also ordered the vessel to leave the dock. During the court battle, the landlord accused the ship of having damaged the berth while the Conservancy said it was all part of an effort to evict the ship.

“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.”

The Conservancy says it has been exploring potential pier locations in the Philadelphia area and along the East Coast able to accommodate the former ocean liner. The Conservancy has also been engaging in targeted outreach to federal and state officials who could help with that effort.

“Relocating a ship the size of the ss United States (53,000 gross tons and 990 feet in length) 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 said.

Since acquiring the ss United States in 2011, the Conservancy has been seeking a redevelopment plan while also working to educate the public about the ship’s history. Built by Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Virginia, the liner was a vision of William Francis Gibbs, one of America’s most noted naval architects of the 20th century. Built during the Cold War, the ocean liner’s capabilities were kept top secret, but she took the title of the fastest Atlantic passenger liner on her maiden voyage between New York, Southampton (England), and back to New York at speeds above 35 knots. It was rumored during her sea trials she touched an unheard of 40 knots for an ocean liner.

The ss United States maintained regular Atlantic service to France and England and later added calls in Germany through the 1950s and into the 1960s often carrying world leaders, political figures, and celebrities, as well as business executives, tourists, and immigrants. She would operate a limited number of cruises before competition from the jet airplane and declining U.S. government subsidies and revenues from transporting members of the military caused the liner to be laid up in November 1969. She had operated for just 17 and a half years.

The United States government acquired the ship but in 1980 sold her to a real estate developer and then she would pass through a series of owners each with plans to redevelop the ship. The Conservancy in November 2023 working with RXR, a New York-based real estate development firm, and MCR, a hotel management company, released a full redevelopment plan to turn the liner into a mixed-use destination and museum. The Conservancy said the redevelopment plan can be adapted to any suitable homeport city, but it cannot advance until a permanent home for the ship is secured.

Surveys of the hull have shown that the vessel remains solid 72 years after she entered service. The interior fittings however were stripped from the ship many years ago creating a blank space ready for redevelopment. The Conversancy reports it will be launching an urgent campaign to aid with the efforts to relocate the vessel while it continues to work on the long-term redevelopment effort.