You wouldn’t know it to look at her, raddled and rusty and parked in Philadelphia, but the S.S. United States was young and sexy once. When she was new, in 1952, she was the largest passenger ship ever built in America, and she’s still the fastest ever. The papers were always running photos of celebrities embarking at Pier 86: Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, the duke and duchess of Windsor, Cary Grant. And then, in the Big U’s early middle age, the jet era began: the United States was retired in 1969.
The ship now belongs to the nonprofit S.S. United States Conservancy, which wants to refit her as a multiuse complex: hotel, shopping, offices, maybe a school. Amazingly, the group has proposals in hand and developers in talks. The first phase calls for the public rooms and exterior to be refurbished, incorporating a new American Museum of Design and Discovery. The full build-out would be next, with a ribbon-cutting roughly four years off. (Conveniently, a previous owner stripped the interior, providing a blank, asbestos-free canvas.) This moment, says managing director Dan McSweeney, is “probably the best situation the ship has been in since 1969.” And, he adds, “the last chance.” Other cities are interested, but there are reasons to bring the United States to New York. Putting it in a global city makes sense, doubly so alongside Hudson River Park. We could use hotel rooms by the Javits Center. We have the Intrepid, so there’s precedent for a big ship turned stationary object. Besides: The ship belongs here. It was from West 46th Street that she began her maiden voyage and tied up on her last. It even says so on the stern, where the registry is spelled out: UNITED STATES, NEW YORK.