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Donations Help the S.S. United States Fend Off the Scrapyard

The New York Times logo The New York Times 11/24/2015 By JESSE PESTA
This July 2001 file photo shows a weathered American flag still flying, as the S.S. United States ocean liner sits moored at a slip along the Delaware River in Philadelphia. © AP Photo/Chris Gardner This July 2001 file photo shows a weathered American flag still flying, as the S.S. United States ocean liner sits moored at a slip along the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

For now, at least, the next port of call for the S.S. United States — the fastest oceanliner ever built — will not be the scrapyard, thanks to an outpouring of donations from ship lovers around the world.

Last month the preservationists who own the vessel faced a nightmare: Short of cash, they had been forced to seek bids from scrappers. Complicating matters, it was not even certain that the scrappers would be enthusiastic, given the decline in global commodities prices.

But in recent weeks, the ship’s existential crisis attracted donors from around the world who have contributed more than $600,000, buying time for the preservationist group, the S.S. United States Conservancy, to press ahead with a plan to redevelop the vessel.

The donations — including an anonymous gift of $250,000 — will cover the cost of caring for the ship “well into next year,” said Susan Gibbs, the conservancy’s executive director.

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The conservancy received three offers to melt down the vessel, but on Monday its board voted unanimously to reject those bids. The ship has particular value as scrap metal because, according to naval historians, it contains more aluminum than any structure built before the World Trade Center.

The Titanic-size luxury liner is docked in the Delaware River in Philadelphia. It has not moved under its own power for decades. But half a century ago, it dominated passenger service on the high seas between New York City and Europe. The ship was so powerful that during the Cold War, its top speed was a state secret.

In a statement, the anonymous donor said that scrapping the ship would be “like letting the Statue of Liberty be melted down and turned into pennies.”

The conservancy has also received two $100,000 gifts, including one from Richard O’Leary, who as a young man served as the ship’s navigator for five years during the midcentury glory days. On its first crossing, in the 1950s, the S.S. United States set a trans-Atlantic speed record that still stands.

Ultimately, jet travel put an end to the need for the luxury liners. Mr. O’Leary recalled watching the sky from the ship’s bridge back in the early 1960s when he was part of the crew. “I’d see these contrails up there, and I realized, things are changing,” he said.

A separate $100,000 gift to the conservancy was made by Jim Pollin, who during an earlier financial crisis had given the conservancy $250,000 to save one of the ship’s once-top-secret propellers from being sold for scrap.

Mr. Pollin became interested in the ship by chance a few years ago when he spotted it from the deck of another vessel on the Delaware River. “I looked up, and I saw the ship,” he said, “And I said, ‘My God!’ ”

The conservancy also received hundreds of smaller gifts, including $5 and a hand-drawn picture of the ship from Thomas Gaskins, an 11-year-old from LaBelle, Fla., who, his mother said, also loves trains.

Taken together, the latest contributions are not enough to secure the ship for the long term. Monthly docking, insurance and caretaker costs total about $60,000.

“People can do the math,” Ms. Gibbs said.

But the recent crisis accelerated the redevelopment plans, she said, including the prospect of bringing the ship back to New York as part of a waterfront real estate development. The conservancy is working with developers after identifying two sites in New York that could accommodate the ship.

The conservancy also received “several new overtures” in recent weeks from prospective investors who started conducting visits to the ship with engineers and architects. “It’s fair to say there is a renewed momentum,” Ms. Gibbs said.

In 2011, the conservancy bought the ship for $3 million from the cruise operator NCL Group, which was taking bids from scrapyards at the time. NCL had dropped its plan to put the ship back in service as a cruise liner around Hawaii.

Over the years, the conservancy has met with developers and investors in New York, Miami, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and Port Canaveral in Florida, looking for ways to convert the ship into a stationary, mixed-use real estate project and museum complex with hotels, restaurants or other amenities.


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