Saving the liner United States is a mission for Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy and granddaughter of naval architect William Francis Gibbs, who designed it to capture the transatlantic speed record. Crystal Cruises recently became the latest cruise line to look and then pass on restoring the ship. Gibbs spoke with senior editor Tom Stieghorst about the United States' past, present and future.
Q: What's next for the United States?
A: We are going full speed ahead. We think the ship still has life in her yet. The Crystal feasibility studies gleaned it wasn't technically or commercially viable to fulfill their vision of the ship's return to sea. On the plus side, they performed extensive feasibility assessments that indicated that the ship is still remarkably sound, given that she was withdrawn from service in 1969, so there's still a tremendous amount of potential in our view for the ship's adaptive reuse.
Q: Is the quest to revive it as a cruise ship over?
A: You never say never, but we are turning our attention more aggressively to a stationary scenario. We're very inspired by examples such as the Queen Mary in Long Beach, and particularly the Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The ship's potential as a mixed-use museum and development complex, permanently moored in a great port setting such as New York or Philly or Miami, we think there's a tremendous degree of potential there.
Q: Will that be any easier to accomplish?
A: Some of the technical challenges that Crystal encountered with seagoing service, for example, complying with ... the Safety of Life at Sea requirements, it's a different technical proposition for a stationary scenario. So we're not going to give up the ship.
Q: What are the main tasks ahead?
A: One is securing the investment capital for the ship's refurbishment. The other is securing a permanent, or almost permanent, location. A pier availability. Pursuing those in tandem is the quest. It's fair to say there are several very interesting and promising sites we are looking at closely in New York and elsewhere. But there's more work to be done in terms of putting the pieces together.
Q: We've seen photos of the exterior of the United States. What's the interior like?
A: The ship has been basically stripped out. The interiors provide a complete blank slate for redevelopment because a previous owner decades ago stripped out the interiors of the asbestos that was once used liberally throughout the vessel. My grandfather, who designed the ship, liked to say, "You can't set her on fire, you can't sink her and you can't catch her." He was determined to create this invincible ship and surpass all safety standards. The ship's interiors right now are literally stripped down to the bulkheads, which is a tremendous opportunity for redevelopment.
Q: Doesn't that reduce its value?
A: We like to think that some of the historical spaces would be re-created so the ship could be a journey back in time, but that other parts of the vessel could be adapted and really evoke the innovation that the ship was known for. In 1952, when this ship was launched, it was unlike any other ship. In the post-war moment in American history it was kind of the space shuttle of its day. And so how now could we and our future partners really harness the innovation that was the ship's hallmark?