SS UNITED STATES Pilgrimage, Part Two: Upper Decks

Peter Knego continues with his tour of the famed SS UNITED STATES during his recent visit to Philadelphia, with a look at the ship’s upper deck areas and striking MidCentury Ocean Liner architecture.



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

Monday, September 17, 2012

Builder’s plate.

Built at Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, UNITED STATES was the crowning achievement of William Francis Gibbs (1886 — 1967), considered by many to be America’s greatest marine architect. Aside from creating the fastest and safest passenger ship in the world, Gibbs was intent on giving the SS UNITED STATES the appearance of “power and might”.

Builder’s stencil.

Gibbs was known as a taskmaster and perfectionist. Perhaps more than any ship built to date, the UNITED STATES was held to an extraordinarily high standard of construction, which is probably why she has endured 40-plus dormant years so well. 

William Francis Gibbs with the UNITED STATES. Peter Knego collection.

Gibbs’ fascinating life story has been thoroughly covered in the recently released book,”A Man And His Ship — America’s Greatest Naval Architect And His Quest To Build The SS UNITED STATES” by Steven Ujifusa.  Obsessed with ocean liners and ships in general, he began drawing them at the age of 3, with a prescient emphasis on speed, size and large funnels.  In 1916, he and his brother Frederick formed an architectural firm called the Gibbs Brothers Company (later renamed Gibbs and Cox) and in 1921, they were hired to convert the German-built liner VATERLAND into the U.S. flagship LEVIATHAN.  Future liner commissions would include Matson’s magical MALOLO of 1927, Grace Line’s SANTA ROSA quartet of 1932 — 33 and what would probably be the most beautiful U.S.-built liner of all time, the SS AMERICA of 1940.


United front.

In addition to her long, gracious fo’c’sle, which spans from the tip of the bow aft via a pair of boons, cargo holds and deck houses, the UNITED STATES boasts an imposing, grand ocean liner “layer cake” superstructure capped by a wheelhouse with open wings that extend over the side of the ship.

Port side portal.
Forward superstructure.

Such curvature and grace, once common on the high seas, has all but vanished in today’s more space-efficient but aesthetically challenged, slab-sided maritime world.

Stepped shadows.

Peeling paint and traces of rust cannot obscure the glorious elements of the UNITED STATES’ architecture.

Wheelhouse banner.
Banner, ctd.

A banner urging awareness for the UNITED STATES’ plight was erected by the Conservancy across the ship’s wheelhouse this past July.

Radio Mast and Sampan Funnels

Flying bridge, facing aft.

Three magnificently sculpted aluminum structures top the ship — a robot-like radio mast and two over-sized, domed funnels that made the UNITED STATES instantly recognizable, even from great distances.

Mast from below.

The mast has an almost “early sci-fi” look with its rounded crow’s nest. The uppermost platform and railing were sheared off (and now lie at the base of the mast) so the ship could pass safely under the Walt Whitman Bridge when she was moved to her current berth.

Funnels from aft flying bridge.
Facing up to forward funnel.

The UNITED STATES’ two huge funnels are Gibbs’ signature “Sampan” design, with a teardrop footprint sporting squared-off fins under a domed cap. The first passenger ships to sport these fixtures were Gibb’s SANTA ROSA quartet of 1932 — 1933, but only their forward stacks were so adorned. The stately AMERICA of 1940 had a pair of them but hers boasted an elliptical ring beneath the fins. A number of United States Lines cargo ships of the 50s and 60s had small sampan funnels but the last passenger ships fitted with them were Gibbs’ SANTA ROSA and SANTA PAULA of 1958, which, in many external respects, were single funneled, diminutive replicas of the UNITED STATES.

Aft funnel, facing up.
Under aft fin.

From every angle, these are awe-inspiring creations. Many UNITED STATES fans feel, quite rightly, that if the stacks could get a fresh coast of red, white and blue paint, inspiring the general public into sharing the dream of her restoration would be much easier.

Bridge Deck

Wheelhouse, facing port.
Wheelhouse window.

As with the rest of the ship’s interior, the wheelhouse is now just a shell, albeit with a working clinometer. Since most U.S.-built ships featured standardized equipment, replacing the UNITED STATES’ telegraphs and other navigation gear would not be an impossible task. This level of the ship continued aft via open promenades, the chart and radio room and officers’ accommodation.

Aft from starboard wing.

The view aft from the UNITED STATES’ bridge wings is still breathtaking, with those towering, monumental funnels atop her terraced superstructure.

Shelter deck, facing starboard.
SS UNITED STATES, Port Bridge Deck, facing aft.

On Bridge Deck, there is a sheltered games area which must have been very popular during cold or stormy crossings. I recognized a large metal ping pong table from my first visit to the ship in 1984 — it is one of the only original bits of furniture left on board.

Aft from Bridge Deck.

The forward portion of Bridge Deck ends with an open terrace overlooking the former Tourist Class games deck area on Sports Deck.

SS UNITED STATES facing forward from aft funnel base.
Over stern from base of aft funnel.

The aft portion of Bridge Deck was a crew-only terrace surrounding the aft funnel.

Sports Deck

Midships games deck, facing forward.
Deck angles.

Encircled by open promenades, the next level, Sports Deck, housed a handful of passenger cabins in addition to the captain’s suite and officers’ accommodation. The Tourist Class games deck is located on this level between the two funnels.

Sun Deck

Port Sun Deck, facing aft.
Port Sun Deck, facing forward.

Stripped of their aluminum lifeboats and davits, the now completely exposed Sun Deck promenades fully encircle this level of the ship.

Promenade Deck

Fins and Blades.
Aft/starboard Promenade Deck.

The external portion of Promenade Deck is located aft of the enclosed promenades featured in the first part of this report. On either side, one of the ship’s mighty bronze screws now rests. These were removed to prevent drag on the tow back to the U.S. from the Ukraine and Turkey.

Aluminum cap rails.

After forty years, the UNITED STATES’ distinctive aluminum cap rails are still in great condition.


A slightly elevated games area on aft Promenade Deck was once the domain of Cabin Class.

Upper Deck

Starboard Cabin Class promenade.

The aft portion of Upper Deck began with glass-enclosed promenades that were also reserved for Cabin Class passengers.

Forward from Upper Deck fantail.

Upper Deck stretches all the way aft to the fantail with yet more open deck space dedicated to Cabin Class.

Before wrapping up this part of the story, I’d like to thank watchman Robert Brieschaft for being so helpful and patient while I did my best to capture every enticing angle of the UNITED STATES’ outstanding architecture.

End of SS UNITED STATES Pilgrimage, Part Two: Upper Decks

More to Come…
Very Special Thanks: Mike Alexander, Robert Brieschaft, Martin Cox, Rob Di Stefano, Susan Gibbs, Dan McSweeney


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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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