Real estate firm advances plan to restore SS United States
In a significant step toward preserving “America’s flagship,” a prominent New York development company has agreed to proceed with renovating the mothballed ocean liner SS United States, converting it into a hotel, museum, and entertainment and cultural center — if a city agrees to provide a permanent berth.
RXR Realty announced its intentions in March in conjunction with the SS United States Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that has owned the ship since 2011. It has been docked and deteriorating in Philadelphia since 1996 after being retired in 1969 because of competition from air travel.
In late 2018, RXR began studying the feasibility of renovating and converting the 990-foot ship, which has 600,000 square feet of developable space, into a floating dockside attraction. The company will now proceed on what it estimates will be a $500 million project, with work done over two years at a shipyard plus six months at the ship’s new home port. RXR said it is in early talks with several shipyards that it has not identified.
SS United States at its berth in Philadelphia in 2016. RXR Realty is covering more than $60,000 in dockage fees per month until the renovation project begins.
The ship that set the record in 1952 for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing was taken out of service in 1969. More than five decades later, talks are proceeding with several unnamed shipyards to restore SS United States to its former glory.
Photos courtesy SS United States Conservancy
The company will continue to pay more than $60,000 a month to cover dockage fees and other costs while moving on to the next major step: finding a city interested in having SS United States as a permanent attraction.
RXR is reaching out to officials in New York, the ship’s home port during its years of trans-Atlantic operation, as well as Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.
RXR estimates the project will generate more than 1,000 jobs, becoming a major economic generator for its host city.
“(SS United States) is an iconic piece of American engineering and design, and we’re committed to finding a permanent home and restoring this one-of-a-kind luxury ocean liner into a vibrant, mixed-use destination,” said RXR Chairman and CEO Scott Rechler.
“SS United States has waited a long time for this opportunity,” said Susan Gibbs, president of the SS United States Conservancy and granddaughter of the ship’s designer, the late William Francis Gibbs. “It is a significant step toward finally realizing our goal of saving America’s flagship. RXR’s outstanding team understands the historic importance and economic potential of this enduring symbol of national pride and innovation.”
RXR has a track record of adapting and updating historic buildings. Renovation projects in New York include the Helmsley Building, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, and Pier 57 on Manhattan’s West Side for Google offices.
For the SS United States project, RXR has assembled an architectural and engineering team that includes Perkins Eastman, HLW and Gibbs & Cox. Gibbs & Cox is the naval architect that originally designed the ship.
On its maiden voyage in 1952, SS United States set the record for the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic. It was the largest liner ever built in America, 100 feet longer than RMS Titanic.
In 2016, the SS United States Conservancy and cruise ship operator Crystal Cruises announced that the company would evaluate buying the ship to return it to passenger service. But a $1 million feasibility study determined there were too many problems to overcome.
If RXR’s plan succeeds, SS United States would join Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif., Queen Elizabeth 2 in Dubai, and Rotterdam in its namesake city in the Netherlands as permanent floating attractions.