Once, it was the fastest and one of the most luxurious ocean liners in the world.

On its maiden voyage in 1952, the SS United States set a transatlantic speed record - New York to Bishop Rock, England, in three days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes - eclipsing by 10 hours the mark set by the Queen Mary in 1938.

But for the last 14 years, the pride of a nation has gone nowhere, rusting away at a pier in South Philadelphia, a fading landmark seemingly destined for one last journey: to the scrapyard.

Its owner, Norwegian Cruise Line, which spends about $700,000 a year to moor and maintain the ship, appears ready to pull the plug.

Ah, but what a run. During its glory years, it represented the pinnacle of American Cold War ingenuity and Hollywood glamour.

The ship was larger than the Titanic, fireproof, and could be converted into a vessel for troops within 48 hours, capable of carrying 14,000 soldiers more than 10,000 nautical miles without refueling.

The SS United States was never called upon to do that. Instead, it entertained an A-list of guests - John F. Kennedy, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, and Marlon Brando among them - who danced in opulent ballrooms and feasted upon Scotch grouse a l'Anglaise, paupiette of Dover sole, and braised smoked ox tongue.

But with the advent of jet travel to Europe, the ship's fortunes rapidly declined. It was retired in 1969 and changed owners several times.

Since 1996, the SS United States has been on life support, docked at Pier 82 across from an Ikea near the Walt Whitman Bridge.

A group of preservationists, the SS United States Conservancy, says Norwegian Cruise Line has been accepting bids from ship-breakers and a deal could be finalized by the end of the month.

"The ship's situation has been precarious since 1969," said Susan Gibbs, a member of the conservancy board whose Philadelphia-born grandfather designed the SS United States. "Now it's really at the end of the line. It is indeed a dire situation."

A spokeswoman for NCL America, a subsidiary of the Malaysian-based Genting Group, did not deny that the ship was being shown to scrappers.

"We are, and have been since early last year, accepting bids from suitable buyers. The only contingency is that the buyer must be a U.S. entity," said spokeswoman AnneMarie Mathews.

In the meantime, the conservancy has launched an S.O.S. campaign to raise both national awareness and funds to buy the ship.

The minimum bid for the ship reportedly dropped from $20 million last year to $1.5 million.

"This is a critical and powerful symbol of our country that cannot be lost," said Dan McSweeney, the conservancy's executive director.

McSweeney figures the conservancy needs to raise at least $3 million to buy the vessel and maintain it for the next two years.

Last year, Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, pledged $300,000 to save the ship from destruction. Meanwhile, the conservancy's "plank owner" campaign, launched last week, has raised more than $20,000 in small donations from across the country, McSweeney said.

"I don't think we'll be able to raise a couple of million in the next weeks, but we're hoping it will help generate some momentum," McSweeney said.

The conservancy is also exploring legal means that might prevent the removal of the ship to a company that would destroy it.

The SS United States is on both the National and Pennsylvania Registers of Historic Places, said admiralty attorney Frank DiGiulio, a conservancy member. Although the federal designation provides no protection, Pennsylvania law could give the conservancy the right to ask for a hearing or sue in court.

McSweeney and Gibbs envision a "public-private partnership" that would repurpose the SS United States into a floating hotel, convention center, or casino.

Converting the ship would create "hundreds or thousands of jobs" and revitalize the southern end of the waterfront, McSweeney said.

"If done conscientiously, it could be a self-sustaining economic development engine for the Philadelphia waterfront," McSweeney said. "It would be a real gem."

A few faded ocean liners have attempted similar transformations, said Susan Fino, a Wayne State University professor and member of the conservancy.

When the RMS Queen Elizabeth was retired in 1968, plans called for converting it into a hotel and later into a floating university. But the ship burned in Hong Kong harbor in 1972 and was later scrapped.

A plan to repurpose the Queen Elizabeth II into a luxury hotel in Dubai has been put on hold after the collapse of the local economy, Fino said.

The RMS Queen Mary was sold in 1967 and subsequently opened in Long Beach, Calif., as a floating hotel featuring several restaurants and historic attractions.

The SS Rotterdam, launched in 1958, was restored and opened as a hotel and museum last month in the Netherlands.

The outlook for the SS United States, however, might not be as rosy. A previous owner auctioned off most of its fittings, and the ship was gutted in 1994 to remove asbestos.

"Realistically, the ship has no commercial value other than as scrap," said Tim Colton, president of Maritime Business Strategies, a Florida-based firm of maritime economists, industrial engineers and transportation consultants.

"It would be nice to see her converted to a hospital ship, or a hotel, like the Queen Mary, or preserved as a museum," Colton said, "but if it hasn't happened by now, it's not going to happen."

Still, the members of the SS United States Conservancy remain resolutely optimistic.

"We know our vision exists within the realm of possibility," McSweeney said. "We just need some time and money to kick-start the project."

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or samwood@phillynews.com.