As a little girl, Susan Gibbs remembers visiting her grandmother's coastline home in Rockport, Mass. There was the bronze bust of her grandfather, William Francis Gibbs, positioned as if he were staring off to sea. It would later prompt curious expeditions to the attic, where old newspaper clippings and photographs were pulled from trunks.
The documents revealed that William Francis Gibbs had a passion in his life, "the other woman," according to the family. It was, in fact, a ship that he would design and help build. It was the SS United States, a luxurious ocean liner that was larger than the Titanic, faster than the Queen Mary, and the last of its breed. The top political, military and entertainment figures of the day regularly sailed aboard her, along with everyday Americans and immigrants to our shores.
Fast forward to 1999: A young Marine, Dan McSweeney, is driving through Philadelphia. He is on his way to the Marine base in Quantico, Va., from his home in New York. He catches a glimpse of something that will change his life.
"I just kind of looked over and saw the funnels in the distance. I immediately knew what it was, because I grew up hearing about her, but I had never seen her before. So I got off the highway to go and get a closer look," says McSweeney. "I went on to Quantico, but I knew that I had to get involved somehow."
Today, Susan Gibbs is the executive director of SS United States Conservancy, and Dan McSweeney, whose father migrated from Scotland to serve as a steward on the SS United States, is managing director of the SS United States Redevelopment Project, a division of the Conservancy. Formed in 2004, the Conservancy acquired the ship last year in an effort to save and "repurpose" her.
As descendants, both Gibbs and McSweeney are part of a community, a special fraternity that has been touched deeply by this ship, which was taken out of service in 1969 after a 17-year run of transatlantic crossings, and has somehow, some way avoided being dismantled for scrap. The ship has been berthed along the Delaware River in South Philadelphia for more than 15 years.
"It really is remarkable the ship has not been scrapped before now," Gibbs says. "As the passenger ship with the longest time in layup, it has been more than a cat with nine lives. It is extraordinary that the vessel is still floating. The fact that she has lasted this long, again, is another reason why we just have to save this vessel for future generations."
But though the history runs deep, this is more than just another historic preservation story. It's about site selection, about finding the best business use — or, rather, uses — in the best place possible.
For the Conservancy, which is now seeking real estate developers to partner with in forming and shaping a future business case for the SS United States, this is an economic development project. In short, this is a story about finding a new home and new use for this historic vessel.
"There are people in America who understand that this ship needs to be saved because it is a part of our history. But we also have to look at it from a business point of view," McSweeney says. "We are not asking people to send us money so that we can continue to keep the ship where she is now indefinitely. What we are asking people to do is contribute money so that we can create a sustainable attraction that serves a business function."
A New Mixed-Use Model?
In March, New Canaan Advisors LLC was added to the growing team leading the redevelopment program. Company founder Curtis Battles worked on the redevelopment of two of New York City's most visible commercial real estate icons — Grand Central Terminal and the World Trade Center. He says his job is help make the transformation of the historic ship into a stationary, multi-purpose water destination happen by finding the right real estate development partner.
Battles says his group crafted a Request for Qualifications that was sent to more than 200 firms, with submissions due June 1. The RFQ will be followed by a Request for Proposals to a select group of respondents.
"We don't know yet how many folks are going to respond to the RFQ but we had a lot of interest across a wide spectrum," Battles says. "There are probably a half dozen groups that will do this well and can put together the kind of team that makes sense to do this. So that is what we are trying to get down to with the RFQ process."
The RFQ is designed to identify a developer to refurbish, transform and re-purpose the historic ship into a for-profit, self-sustaining, multi-purpose stationary waterfront attraction.
"It is not going to be an easy job for sure. It's a big job, but we think that we can do it," McSweeney says. "Our very optimistic goal is to be sitting at the table with the chosen developer in the fall to hash out how we can work together."
Whichever development group is ultimately chosen must demonstrate "vision, financial resources and commitment. And underlying all of that is the acknowledgement that this ship is an irreplaceable American icon." McSweeney says.
From the standpoint of a developer, the fact that the ship has essentially been gutted, with most interior walls having been removed but with the decks still in place, presents a unique opportunity on how to design and develop a mixed-use plan, Battles said.
"The top five to six decks are all clear. So you can look almost down the entire length of the ship and see it open, which makes it a lot easier," Battles says.
Gibbs agrees that the empty space provides for more possibilities.
"The fact that the interiors are gutted provides a wonderful opportunity, because our private developer partners will have a blank slate to create very exciting new space onboard," she says. "It also provides the Conservancy with the opportunity to beautifully recreate some of the more iconic spaces aboard the vessel and use modern materials and technologies to develop an experience that can be better than the original."
Says McSweeney, "We are offering an incredible canvas to work with."
Battles likens the ship to the Chrysler Building, the Art Deco skyscraper in New York, lying on its side — 650,000 sq. ft. (60,385 sq. m.) of useable commercial space "that's sitting there waiting for you to step into without having to build all the exterior brick and mortar yourself."
The SS United States' home port of New York as well as Miami have been identified as promising locations for the long-term docking of the ship, although other cities will be considered.
"So the answer is that we don't know where it is going to land. We try to be very open and say, 'Tell us what you want to do,' " says Battles.
McSweeney agrees that an East coast location is likely, although there has been a group from Galveston, Texas, that has expressed interest.
"We think that New York and Miami are the most likely scenarios. However, we are open to whatever serious inquiries and proposals come forward," McSweeney says.
On May 9, the Conservancy announced the formation of a Blue Riband panel to assess development proposals and offer expert opinions on their strengths and weaknesses to the Conservancy. The panel is named in honor of the fabled transatlantic Blue Riband, an accolade traditionally given to the passenger liner crossing the Atlantic Ocean with the highest speed. The SS United States won the accolade after her maiden voyage on July 4, 1952, when she broke the transatlantic speed record held by the Queen Mary for the previous 14 years by more than 10 hours.
"Ultimately, the decision on which deal to go with will rest on the shoulders of the board of directors of the Conservancy, which owns the ship. However, the expert opinion of the individuals on this panel will be very helpful in helping the board to make a decision," McSweeney says.
Prior to his death in 2009, Walter Cronkite served as the honorary chairman of the Conservancy's board of directors. Earlier this month, the Conservancy was able to secure the blessing of another well-known name for the campaign to find a future for the ship. Former NFL coach and broadcaster Dick Vermeil stars in a new public service announcement which will be distributed to television stations in connection with the 60th anniversary of the USS United States' launch to help drive interest in the efforts to restore and repurpose her.
Take Time, Do It Right
The backers of the project understand the challenges before them as no one has done this before — creating a mixed-use commercial project from an historic ship. The Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif., is not a model to be replicated for the SS United States, nor are the various retired military ships berthed around the country. They serve as tourist attractions, but the Conservancy believes the SS United States has to be more than that.
"We don't want to preserve this ship completely as a museum. It has to be a multi-purpose destination that has significant commercial aspects to it. So in that sense, we are plowing new ground," McSweeney says.
Total costs for redevelopment are difficult to assign without knowing a precise commercial mix for intended use, but McSweeney says it could be in the $200 million to $300 million range.
The costs can be ameliorated by advancing in a two-phase development process, McSweeney says. Phase one would be a cleanup and restoration of the exterior of the ship, which remains in very good condition structurally, so that she would appear as she did when she first went into service in 1952. The idea is to make the ship initially a destination for events, and thereby derive income from event space.
"So, assuming that we find the right location, we have the ship there for several years and use it as an events base while planning a capital fundraising for a second phase, which is full build-out of the interior of ship," McSweeney says. "We think that approach is much more feasible and much more doable, and it also allows a market to develop around the ship before full-fledged redevelopment occurs."
Battles says the phase one exterior restoration of the ship would probably be in the $30-million range.
An exhibition of artifacts and artwork showcasing the SS United States opened at the Forbes Galleries in New York on May 18 and run through September 8. The exhibition will focus on life aboard the ship and convey the SS United States' special role as national symbol and cultural touchstone. China, furniture, artwork and documents from the ship's top-secret design are among more than 120 artifacts assembled.
Among the items on display is the bust of William Francis Gibbs, who was on the ship's maiden voyage but never on another. Still, he was obsessed with the SS United States, said granddaughter Susan Gibbs.
"It was really a dream come true for him," Ms. Gibbs says. "He is on record as saying that he loved the ship one thousand times more than his own wife."
So much so that Mr. Gibbs would be always present when the ship docked at Pier 86 in Manhattan after every transatlantic voyage.
"I have talked to so many crew members and officers who have said that every single time that they docked the ship, there was my grandfather standing there watching. And then he would be one of the first to board the vessel when it was finally tied up to the dock," Ms. Gibbs says.
The SS United States was an obsession then and is an obsession for many today. If and how that obsession can be transformed into a viable commercial piece of floating real estate is now the question looming on the horizon like a sailor's home port.