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November 03, 2023

The SS United States, the ocean liner docked in South Philly, may find a new home as a Manhattan hotel

The historic ship once set a record for the fastest trip across the Atlantic Ocean. But it has sat unused on the Delaware River for nearly three decades, with varying plans failing to gain traction

Development Ships
SS United States Hotel Source/SS United States Conservancy

A conceptual rendering shows the SS United States as the center of a hotel and events hub on the Hudson River in New York City. The historic ocean liner has been docked on the Delaware River in South Philadelphia since 1996.

For nearly three decades, the SS United States has been docked on the Delaware River waterfront in South Philadelphia without a clear plan for its long-term preservation. The latest proposal would convert the retired ocean liner into a hotel and public destination at its home port on the Hudson River in Manhattan.

The SS United States Conservancy, which cares for the aging vessel, unveiled plans Thursday to work with New York developer RXR and MCR Hotels to repurpose the ship as a hotel with 1,000 rooms. It would serve as the anchor of a mixed-used project that includes restaurants, event venues and green space.

Built in the years after World War II, the SS United States set a speed record on its maiden voyage from New York to London in 1952. It crossed the Atlantic Ocean in three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes, with an average speed of 35.59 knots. The ship's top recorded speed of 38.32 knots — about 45 mph — could be reached using only two-thirds of its power. The U.S. Department of Defense had funded the vessel's innovative design so it could move 14,000 troops across the Atlantic in 48 hours, without having to refuel.

The SS United States had a 17-year career as a transatlantic liner, carrying four U.S. presidents and a long list of notable celebrities including Marlon Brando, Sean Connery, Salvador Dali and Marilyn Monroe.

High operating costs and the withdrawal of U.S. government subsidies for its commercial use ultimately led to its retirement. The SS United States then spent more than a decade primarily docked in Virginia, where various plans to repurpose it failed to materialize. It was sent to Philadelphia in 1996 and later added to the National Register of Historic Places, but was unable to find a long-term operator.

The nonprofit SS United States Conservancy purchased the boat in 2011, beginning a long period of fundraising for maintenance and refurbishments that would make it more appealing to developers. The ship is docked at Pier 82 opposite the Ikea store in South Philly, collecting rust and perennially on the brink of being sold for scrap. More recently, the conservancy said its landlord doubled the rent for the vessel's space without notice during the COVID-19 pandemic, putting it at risk of eviction. The nonprofit has contended in court that the landlord, Penn Warehousing, illegally hiked the rent from $850 a day to $1,700 a day. The conservancy has refused to pay the additional charges pending the resolution of the court case.

SS US PhillyStreetView/Google Maps

The SS United States is shown above at Pier 82 on the Delaware River in South Philadelphia.

This is not the first time RXR, a specialist in rehabilitating old structures, has shown interest in returning the SS United States to the Hudson River. Just before the start of the pandemic, the company had signed an agreement with the conservancy to explore possible uses for the ocean liner. 

The developer had been working with Airbnb on possibly turning it into a multipurpose venue with a brewery, food hall, museum and possible hotel. That particular vision did not move forward, but RXR and its partners have continued to evaluate the vessel's renovation needs and the feasibility of rehoming it. The ship is about 990 feet long — if stood upright, it would be a bit taller than the Comcast Center.  

The conceptual plan released this week is privately funded and would require redevelopment of adjacent piers on the Hudson River. While that would be the preferred location, the conservancy said other port cities potentially could be chosen to bring the ship back into use. Gibbs & Cox, the vessel's original design firm, will serve as a project advisor along with Perkins Eastman and HLW architects. 

"The SS United States symbolizes the nation's ambition and innovation. Our development partners have embraced the patriotic and economic significance of this monumental project," said Susan Gibbs, president of the conservancy and granddaughter of the ship's designer. "Through their extensive due diligence, they have created a bold and exciting plan that preserves the ship’s history and activates the vessel’s commercial potential."

The conservancy did not share the location along the Hudson River where the SS United States would be relocated. One of the vessel's four propellers was sent to Manhattan in 2021 to be displayed at the recreational and cultural space at Pier 76. During its service career, the SS United States was mostly docked at Pier 86. 

RXR and MCR's previous redevelopment projects include the TWA Flight Center complex at JFK Airport and Manhattan's Pier 57.

The conservancy is now seeking state and local interest from New York and other potential host cities. The nonprofit and the developers said they are prepared to donate the ship together with the design and engineering work that has already been completed in order to help secure a new home for the vessel.