Its future is still uncertain, but the SS United States is getting a below-the-deck makeover to make it more appealing for developers interested in turning what was once the world's fastest ocean liner into a massive dockside attraction.
Workers began a project in October to remove tanks and other materials from the belly of the ship to make way for modern utilities systems that would need to go in to transform it. There's a second objective to the project, which is expected to last well into 2014: selling the materials to raise the $50,000 to $60,000 it takes each month to maintain and insure the vessel.
The SS United States Conservancy, the nonprofit group that owns the ship, warns that if its grand plans do not come together quickly, there might be no choice but to sell the historic liner as scrap.
"It's a great fixer-upper," said Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy and the granddaughter of William Francis Gibbs, the ship's Philadelphia-born designer, on a tour of the ship.
How to use the ship — as long as three football fields and a monument to shimmery aluminum and the sleek lines of mid-20th-century Modernism — has been a conundrum for more than 40 years.
The SS United States was launched in 1952 as the world's fastest ocean liner, and it still holds the record for speediest trans-Atlantic voyage. The ship was partially funded by the Navy with the idea that it could be converted one day into an extremely efficient troop transporter.
But it was never called to service by the government. And by 1969, after carrying four presidents, Prince Rainier of Monaco, Elizabeth Taylor and a million other people across the Atlantic, it was retired from its regular duties.
The hulking ship has been berthed on the Delaware River in Philadelphia since 1996, its once-bold red, white and blue paint faded and its iron oxidizing in a pier across the street from a shopping center.
Over the years, plans to make the SS United States into a cruise ship have failed, partly because it was designed for speed, not slow-moving recreation, and is narrower than modern cruise ships.
The conservancy used a $5.8 million gift from a Philadelphia philanthropist in 2010 to buy the ship. The group's vision is different from others that came before. It wants to turn it into a mult-iuse attraction, perhaps with restaurants, a hotel and banquet facilities, along with a maritime history museum.
Some retired naval ships — including the USS New Jersey in nearby Camden and the USS Intrepid in New York — have been turned into museums. But the high overhead costs of keeping a boat floating, even if it's stationary, can bring financial difficulties. Despite fundraising efforts, the SS United States owners would have a difficult time paying basic bills without selling some scrap.
There is at least one model for the sort of development the SS United States owners have in mind. The SS Rotterdam opened three years ago with a hotel, museum and school in its namesake city in the Netherlands.
Thomas Basile, a consultant with the conservancy, believes it would be feasible in New York City or Philadelphia.
Aboard the ship, Basile said it's in better shape than it appears, and a level in the navigation bridge shows that it's not hewing either way. "It's benefited from being over-engineered," he said.