SS UNITED STATES Pilgrimage, Part One: A Peek Inside

Peter Knego heads back east to visit America’s most celebrated and important passenger ship, the SS UNITED STATES, which is currently laid up in Philadelphia. Here is a brief recap of the fabled ship’s history and a look at some of her interior spaces, both then and now.



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All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2012 unless otherwise noted.

Problogue: Saturday, September 15, 2012

The burnt-out hulk of the SS MORRO CASTLE at Asbury Park, NJ, in 1934. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
78 years later:  facing north along the beach at Asbury Park, NJ. on a pristine September afternoon in 2012.

This particular trek began on a melancholy note in Asbury Park, New Jersey, where I attended a celebration of life for a close friend and former business partner. For ship lovers, Asbury Park has a special lore for being the spot where the liner MORRO CASTLE washed ashore in 1934 after catching fire and burning from stem to stern. The smoldering incident, which is aching to be made into a major Hollywood motion picture, resulted in the loss of 137 lives and and the implementation of new SOLAS fire safety laws.

Peter Knego collection.

While in the region, I felt it urgent to revisit the UNITED STATES, the ultimate American maritime achievement of the Post War, or, for that matter, any era. I was last aboard in late 1997 and while I had the opportunity to spend two days fully exploring and photographing her, I was long overdue for a return.

The Hales Trophy for fastest Atlantic crossing. Peter Knego collection.

The UNITED STATES’ history is ubiquitous to fans of the great liners but for the few who are not aware of her, she was built in 1952 as the largest (52,000 gross tons) and fastest (top verified speed of 38 knots, which, at 1.15 mph equals approximately 44 mph) passenger ship built in America. She won the Blue Riband for fastest crossing of the Atlantic in both directions and while her eastbound record was finally beaten by a hydrofoil, she remains the fastest large ocean liner ever built.

She measures 990 (the maximum Panamax length) by 101 feet and was built to carry 1,928 passengers in three classes (first, cabin and tourist) with a crew of 900. Considered sterile by many at the time, her interiors were composed of fireproof materials and heavily employed linoleum, brushed steel, glass and Marinite (panels made of an asbestos compound). Her decor may have been severe but with time, it grows increasingly attractive for its sleek MidCentury shapes and vibrant colors, courtesy of an all-female design team led by Dorothy Markwald.

Maiden New York arrival. Peter Knego collection.

Having grown up in the 1960’s with the World Book Encyclopedia and a reverence (at the time) for Disney films — the UNITED STATES was featured in the Fred MacMurray movie, “Bon Voyage” and even appeared as a backdrop in a variety of movies, from “West Side Story” to “Die, Die, My Darling” — the ship was, to me, the definition of “ocean liner” long before I became smitten with the topic. Those two over-sized, domed funnels in their bold red, white and blue colors, that sharply raked prow and her long, slender hull were to my young eyes about as powerful looking as any man-made object could be. I’m pretty certain every kid of my generation was aware of the UNITED STATES, the QUEEN MARY and the QUEEN ELIZABETH, just like later generations would embrace the 747 and the Space Shuttle.

She carried everyone from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, John Wayne, Bob Hope, James Stewart and a young Bill Clinton to the actual Mona Lisa. That she only sailed for 17 years before being mothballed in 1969 didn’t diminish her legend. Actually, it probably fueled it, since unlike many other liners, the UNITED STATES did not go through a gradual decline before fading out.

Plans unrealized: Hadley’s cruise ship UNITED STATES from a brochure detailing her 1980 return to service. Peter Knego collection.

High operating costs ended her career prematurely and she sat tucked away at Newport News and later Norfolk, before being sold to Seattle-based developer Richard Hadley, who intended to run her as a combination time-share and cruise ship in 1978.

Guernsey’s auction catalog. Peter Knego collection.

Hadley’s good intentions soon paved an unintended “road to hell” in which his soon-to-be-cash-strapped organization held an auction of the ship’s fittings to help pay for a conversion that was never to take place.

Guided tour of the wheelhouse. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 1984.

That 1984 auction enabled me to make my first pilgrimage to the ship in Norfolk, where I spent several days volunteering as a tour guide just to have unfettered access while she was opened up for public inspection.

First Class Ballroom, just prior to the auction. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 1984.
Stairs of steel and linoleum. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 1984.

I recall wandering her passageways and public spaces in the after hours, marveling at countless details such as original soft fittings, signage and paperwork that were literally frozen in time.

Starboard promenade. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 1984.

Her utilitarian, fireproof interiors had not aged to the point that I could fully appreciate them but I nonetheless marveled that everything I was looking at (and not doing a very good job of documenting) was entirely original.

The ensuing auction saw most of the ship’s innards literally torn to shreds as key items were pried out of her like so many decaying teeth. The formerly proud UNITED STATES was left a shambles, Hadley’s plans never materialized and she continued to sit. Homeless people allegedly found shelter in her abandoned accommodation, opportunistic watchmen sold off whatever remaining bits and pieces they could and vandals and the harsh weather took care of the rest.

In 1992, new owners headed by Fred Mayer of Commodore Cruise Lines, purchased the ship with yet more plans to refurbish the UNITED STATES for cruise service. With the growing awareness of the hazards of asbestos and other environmental toxins that were largely used in construction of ships of her era, they had her towed to Turkey and, eventually, the Ukraine, where all of these substances could be cheaply removed. What few bits of the UNITED STATES’ ravaged interior remained were scraped out in Sebastopol. She re-emerged a “blank canvas”, pruned of her aluminum lifeboats and all interior fittings.

SS UNITED STATES at Packer Marine Terminal. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 1996.

In 1996, she was towed back across the Atlantic, finding a last-minute home in Philadelphia at the Packer Marine Terminal underneath the Walt Whitman Bridge. I was on the East Coast at the time and managed to convince a sympathetic tug boat captain to sneak me into the heavily guarded terminal for a few quick photos of her exterior. I then hired a helicopter to take some aerial views before returning home.

My next chance to visit her came in late 1997, courtesy of Mike Alexander, a Utah-based enthusiast who was actively campaigning to see the ship saved. By then, the UNITED STATES had been moved to her current berth, Pier 82, on the Philadelphia waterfront. Mike had earned the trust of the ship’s then-owner, Edward Cantor, and was allowed to bring a guest or two on board with him.

The morgue. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 1997.
Top secret turbine. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 1997.
Engine room control panel. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 1997.

In a span of two cold, rainy days, I was able to wander freely through the ship and document every possible interior space and bit of architecture, including her once-top-secret engineering compartment. It was exciting but also very disheartening to find this great lady stripped to the bone but even her empty shell exuded a thoroughbred’s grace and dignity. Not long after our visit, tragically and suddenly, Mike Alexander passed away but his dream will live on so long as the ship remains with us.

In 1998, the SS United States Foundation was created to help raise awareness for the ship’s salvation. Through their efforts in 1999, the ship was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and through the work of the SS United States Trust, an offshoot of the Foundation, a letter of support from Bill Clinton was secured. Both organizations are no longer active but without their efforts, the ship might well have slipped away years ago.

In 2003, after Mr. Cantor’s death, the UNITED STATES was put up for auction by his estate. Outbidding a cabal of scrappers, Norwegian Cruise Line purchased the ship. Some claim NCL only bought the THE BIG U to stop others from using her as competition for their new NCL America product but the fact remains that whatever their intent was, if NCL did not buy her, the UNITED STATES would have gone for scrap in 2003. I attended the christening ceremony of their PRIDE OF HAWAI’I cruise ship and heard with my own ears when then-chairman Tam Sri Lim Kok Thay stated that if the project was successful, the UNITED STATES would be their fourth ship. Unfortunately, the venture began disastrously and NCLA would never need a fourth ship, let alone two of the three they started with.

In 2007, NCL conducted a number of surveys that determined the UNITED STATES was still in excellent structural condition but the economic downturn laid to rest any plans, however remote, they had for the ship. In 2010, NCL put the UNITED STATES up for sale but in lieu of taking almost $6 million from interested scrappers, they agreed to sell her for $3 million to the Conservancy. In turn, Philadelphia-based philanthropist Gerry Lenfest provided 20 months of docking fees to give the Conservancy time to find a permanent home and developer for the ship. Putting their money where their hearts and mouths are, the Conservancy completed purchase of the UNITED STATES in February of 2011. The well-organized group has been working closely with developers in several major cities, from Miami to New York and Philadelphia to draw up a viable plan to use the ship as a floating convention center and attraction.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Finned cupola.

For me, the UNITED STATES is hallowed ground. She is the crowning achievement of American maritime ingenuity and resolve. She has sat idle for over 40 years against all odds and it would be a crime on many levels to see her disposed of. Viewed from the dockside, her shocking exterior appearance is purely cosmetic, something that will hopefully soon be remedied with some sandblasting and fresh paint. In the meantime, she wears her rust and peeling paint like scars from an ongoing battle against the elements, one that she has thus far endured.

First Class Stairtower.
Stairway heyday. Peter Knego collection.

After signing various waivers, I was led up the forward stairtower through the shellwork of the ship’s accommodation spaces. The stairs, despite being stripped bare, still retained their imposingly elegant form.

SS UNITED STATES Upper Deck linoleum.
Polka dots and linoleum.

Under foot, a few nice original details awaited re-discovery.

SS UNITED STATES, Starboard Upper Deck, facing forward.
SS UNITED STATES Starboard Upper Deck Suite, facing starboard.
A First Class Suite. Peter Knego collection.

Only the structural support bulkheads remain in all of the accommodation areas, including where the ship’s most lavish suites were once located.

SS UNITED STATES, First Class Dining Room, facing aft from balcony.
First Class Dining Room. Peter Knego collection.

In the darkness, our flashlights scanned the once-domed First Class Dining Room from the musician’s balcony.

SS UNITED STATES forward/port Promenade Deck, facing forward: From the vantage of the former First Class Observation Lounge to the Tourist Class Writing Room and Lounge.
Tourist Class Lounge. Peter Knego collection.
Tourist Class Library. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 1984.

The forward end of Promenade Deck began with the Tourist Class Lounge, Writing Room and Library, which were separated from the First Class Observation Lounge by a structural archway with now non-existent partitions. Another thing that was  missing on this visit was the odor of mildew and decaying birds, thanks to the ship’s team of dedicated watchmen who keep her tidier than she has been since her arrival in Philadelphia.

SS UNITED STATES Tourist Class Theater, facing aft.
Tourist Class Theater. Peter Knego collection.

Easy to distinguish in the inboard portion of forward Promenade Deck was the former, 199-seat Tourist Class Theater.

SS UNITED STATES, starboard promenade, facing aft.
Sign 99.

From either side of the main foyer on Promenade Deck, glass-enclosed promenades stretch aft along her former first class public rooms. For years caked in bird carcasses (apparently the ship had a few resident hawks that enjoyed devouring pigeons here) and mold, the promenades are now kept clean and dry.

SS UNITED STATES First Class Ballroom, facing aft.
First Class Ballroom in its heyday. Peter Knego collection.

The First Class Ballroom looked circular due to its layout and a quartet of etched glass panels (some of which are now aboard Celebrity Cruises CELEBRITY INFINITY) in its heyday. Today, within its framework is a bar that was actually built as a prop for the Colin Farrell film, “Dead Man Down”.  A day of shooting the upcoming action film on board the UNITED STATES occurred earlier this year.

SS UNITED STATES Navajo Room windows, facing starboard.
Navajo Room in its heyday. Peter Knego collection.
SS UNITED STATES Navajo Room, facing aft.

Continuing aft, oversized porthole-style windows on the starboard side are all that remain of the clubby first class cocktail bar once known as the Navajo Lounge. It originally boasted a series of sand art paintings depicting Navajo rituals by Peter Ostumi.

Promenade Restaurant, facing forward.

On the port side, some of the framework to the exclusive Promenade Restaurant remains. This was a favorite enclave of guests seeking an intimate dining venue.

SS UNITED STATES, First Class Smoking Room, facing aft/starboard.
First Class Smoking Room, facing port/forward.

From there, it was aft to the former First Class Smoking Room, still recognizable thanks to its curved inner framework.

SS UNITED STATES, First Class Theater, facing aft.
The combination first and cabin class Theater, facing starboard. Peter Knego collection.

Although missing its acoustic walls and hand-woven polka dot curtains, we had no trouble distinguishing the former 352-seat theater that used to cater to first and cabin class passengers at the aft end of Promenade Deck.  The spirit of “The BIG U” still felt very much alive.

We next headed outside to explore the ship’s upper deck areas…

End of SS UNITED STATES Pilgrimage, Part One: A Peek Inside
Very Special Thanks: Mike Alexander, Robert Brieschaft, Martin Cox, Rob Di Stefano, Susan Gibbs, Dan McSweeney, Dan Trachtenberg


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Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego

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