Lighting ceremony tonight in Philadelphia for SS United States

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The SS United States, its smokestacks towering above the pier, was built as a luxury passenger liner that could be converted toa troop carrier. It was removed from service in 1969. Supporters hope the lighting ceremony is a signal of better days ahead.

She was built in 1952 as a giant luxury passenger liner, bigger than the Titanic.

She was fast, the fastest liner to cross the Atlantic, a record she holds even now.

She was considered not just exquisite transportation but potential weaponry, designed to be quickly converted to a troop carrier.

Thursday night, the storied-but-suffering SS United States will be lit during a ceremony at her berth on the Delaware River. It's a special event her supporters hope is a signal of brighter days ahead.

The ship's owner has been accepting bids from companies that want to scrap the vessel and extract value from the metals. But a conservancy working to save the ship says it is in negotiations with the owner and with a possible outside savior.

An announcement on the ship's future could come tonight (Thursday, July 1).

"One of the greatest ships in the history of the world," said Dan McSweeney, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy in Washington.

He's not exaggerating. From its maiden voyage in 1952 to its removal from service in 1969, the SS United States sailed 400 times from New York to Europe and to other destinations.

She ferried three U.S. presidents, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, and another who would become president: a young Bill Clinton, who traveled on the ship to attend Oxford in England.

The ship was designed by William Francis Gibbs, the well-known naval architect who was born and raised in North Philadelphia and Rittenhouse Square. Its steel came from Lukens Steel in Coatesville.

The Annenberg family traveled aboard the ship. So did Princess Grace and her husband, Prince Rainier. Other passengers included foreign leaders, actors, military brass, and diplomats, along with ordinary citizens and tens of thousands of immigrants.

During the Cold War, the SS United States was a weapon in waiting, able to transport troops 10,000 miles without refueling.

Today, the conservancy works to have the ship recognized for its historic and symbolic value - and for its potential prowess as a moneymaker.

The group wants to make the SS United States a major attraction, permanently anchored on the waterfront of a major city. Hundreds or thousands of jobs would be created among trade workers while the ship is refurbished. And more would follow among tourism and hospitality employees once that work is done, group officials said.

Thursday night, Mayor Nutter will help lead the lighting ceremony, the date chosen to honor the 58th anniversary of the ship's maiden voyage, when it set a transatlantic speed record.

The event is open to all. People are asked to gather at the Ikea complex on Columbus Boulevard, across from the ship at Pier 82.

Refreshments will be served at 7 p.m., with live music by Jimmy and the Parrots, whose songs include their tribute to the SS United States, "Symbol of America."

The lighting of the funnels, bridge, and radar mast is set for 8:30, and a screening of a public-television documentary, SS United States: Lady in Waiting, begins at 8:45.

People are advised to bring lawn chairs. From their seats they'll see a ship that links past to present.

Launched during the Korean War, the SS United States provided uninterrupted, transatlantic passenger service for 17 years. But in the 1960s the world was changing, with planes replacing ships as the means to cross oceans.

In 1969, the SS United States docked in Newport News, Va., for an annual overhaul, and was taken from service. The ship was taken to Norfolk, sold and resold, and put up for auction. In 1992, new owners towed it to Turkey and then to Ukraine, and four years later to its current spot in Philadelphia.

Along the way its furniture was sold off and much of its interior stripped.

Even during its wayward travels, the ship had friends. The SS United States Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization that begat the conservancy, started work in 1992. Seven years later the society succeeded in having the SS United States placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Last year, Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest pledged a $300,000 matching grant to help save the ship. U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) has written a letter of support, and City Council passed a resolution that recognized the ship's significance and supported her development as a floating attraction on the Delaware River.

The ship is owned by Norwegian Cruise Line, a subsidiary of Genting Hong Kong. NCL put the ship up for sale in February 2009. The conservancy was offered first chance to buy, but didn't have the money.

This year, preservation efforts took on new urgency, when NCL began accepting bids from scrap companies.

Conservancy officials say NCL and Genting have taken good care of the ship, and obviously can't cover its costs indefinitely. In March the conservancy launched a national fund-raising campaign, "Save Our Ship," seeking tax-deductible "plank owner" donations of at least $25 through a website, www.ssusplankowner.org.

"We're modeling this campaign on the public subscription which saved the USS Constitution back in the 1920s," conservancy board president Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of the designer, said at the time. "She absolutely must be saved for future generations."

McSweeney, too, has a firsthand connection to the ship. His father emigrated from Scotland to serve on its crew. Moreover, he said, the ship is tied to all Americans through its name and deeds.

"The ship is so unique," he said. "The ship really symbolized the pinnacle of American maritime achievement."

 


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.