In 1812, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania nearly demolished Independence Hall. Political leaders sought to raze the iconic building and carve up its land for the highest bidders. Over 200 years later, another national icon in Philadelphia – the SS United States – faces a similar existential threat. And as the crowds thronging National Independence Park on a daily basis show, saving our history does not need to conflict with economic revitalization and job creation.
At almost 1,000 feet from stem to stern – surpassing even the RMS Titanic – the SS United States is the sole surviving American ocean liner. It is also a floating monument of American ingenuity and determination. From its record-breaking maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1952 to its potential to be a top-secret troop transport during the Cold War, the vessel known as “America’s Flagship” has carried presidents, world leaders, celebrities, servicemen and women and countless immigrants. It is an inspired symbol of our nation’s strength, resilience and global influence.
This American icon was designed by William Francis Gibbs, a legendary naval architect and Philadelphian – and my grandfather. His lifelong dream of creating the perfect ship was sparked by seeing a great American ocean liner launched in the Delaware River when he was 8 years old. Almost 60 years later, his dream was fulfilled with the debut of the fastest and safest ship at sea, the SS United States. The majestic superliner epitomized an era when our nation led the world in technological advancements.
However, with the passage of time and the advent of air travel, the ship’s red, white and blue funnels have faded to pink and gray. Docked at Pier 82 along Philadelphia’s Columbus Boulevard, prospects for the ship’s restoration remain uncertain.
The SS United States is confronting the challenges faced by many historic structures, including insufficient funding and public appreciation of their historical significance. These same threats almost doomed Independence Hall in 1812 – and many other iconic structures since, among them The Fairmount Water Works and Memorial Hall, to name just two of the many Pennsylvania landmarks that benefited from a sustained commitment to their preservation and repurposing.
Today, America’s Flagship is in grave danger. Without notice, the vessel’s landlord, which leases the pier from the Port of Philadelphia, doubled the ship’s docking fee during the pandemic. Then they issued an eviction order. The SS United States Conservancy – the national nonprofit organization that has tended to the ship for over a decade – is facing an enormous financial challenge as its long-term plans to renovate the vessel advance. Unless America’s Flagship finds a new home – and fast – it will not survive.
This is why our elected leaders need to act now. Budgets are about priorities. When Gov. Josh Shapiro unveils the budget next week, we will see his. Then it will be the General Assembly’s turn, under the leadership of state Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward and state House Speaker Joanna McClinton, to work in a bipartisan fashion to commit to the funding necessary to secure Pennsylvania’s future while honoring its storied past.
Restoring and repurposing the SS United States would not only honor our history; it would invest in our nation’s and our communities’ future. Leading commercial real estate firm RXR has already teamed up with MCR Hotels to invest $6 million to reimagine a dynamic future for our nation’s namesake. The transformative plan would repurpose the ship’s 600,000 square feet of usable space into a unique, mixed-use, climate-resilient destination. This ambitious project includes a 1,000-room hotel, restaurants, event spaces, public green areas, galleries and a world-class museum.
The SS United States has the potential to become a cultural hub, fostering a sense of national pride and identity. It could anchor and catalyze a reimagined and revitalized waterfront that would enhance the quality of life for residents and attract visitors from the world over – while also generating significant tax revenue for the city and state. This transformation would create more than 4,000 construction jobs, support nearly 800 permanent positions and generate nearly 1,000 indirect jobs.
As we approach the 250th anniversary of our nation’s founding, there could be no more fitting tribute than to restore and revitalize America’s Flagship, the SS United States.
Susan Gibbs is the president and a founding board member of the SS United States Conservancy. She is also the granddaughter of William Francis Gibbs, the designer of the SS United States. For more information visit ssusc.org