Massive, historic 'America's flagship' must leave Philadelphia port. But where can it go?

A federal court has issued a 53,000-ton eviction notice for a ship on the Delaware River.

The hulking and historic SS United States, a thousand-foot-long ocean liner tied for 28 years to Pier 82 behind an Ikea in South Philadelphia, will need to find a new home by Sept. 12, a federal judge ruled this month. The ruling follows a lengthy court dispute over the vessel's berth after landlord Penn Warehousing first told the ship to leave the Port of Philadelphia in 2022.

If the ship can't find a new home, say its stewards, the nonprofit SS United States Conservancy, the historic ship will risk being lost forever.

"The ruling makes clear this iconic American symbol is in peril,” said conservancy President Susan Gibbs, whose grandfather, William Francis Gibbs, designed the ship.

The historic SS United States must leave its berth at Philadelphia's Pier 82 in September 2024, after a federal ruling.
The historic SS United States must leave its berth at Philadelphia's Pier 82 in September 2024, after a federal ruling.

Often called "America's flagship," the SS United States is a marvel of engineering, the longest and largest ocean liner ever built in America and holder of a transatlantic naval speed record that remains unbroken to this day.

But the onetime "speed queen of the seas" can no longer move under her own steam, making any moves costly and difficult to arrange.

The ship will have to move nonetheless, or be sold for scrap or scuttled into a reef, after this month's judgment in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

“The judge’s decision gives us a very limited window to find a new home for the SS United States and raise the resources necessary to move the ship and keep her safe," Gibbs said in a statement. " "We must do both to avoid the tragic fate that countless supporters from around the world have worked for over a decade to prevent.”

The ship is the United States' last remaining historic ocean liner, according to the conservancy. It hosted four U.S. presidents and celebrities from Marilyn Monroe to Walt Disney. The conservancy has for more than a decade tried unsuccessfully to find a permanent moorage for the SS United States as a floating hotel, museum, entertainment complex, or all of the above.

The Sept. 12 deadline will approach quickly. Here's how we got here and what's next for the SS United States.

From the decks of the SS United States: 'America's flagship' under threat of eviction in Philly. But its owners have big plans

SS United States' landlord raised the rent in 2021, then told the ship to leave

The SS United States, the largest ocean liner constructed entirely in America and still the holder of the transatlantic round-trip speed record, has been laid up in Philadelphia since 1996. After a federal ruling, it must eave its berth at Philadelphia's Pier 82 in September 2024, after a federal ruling.
The SS United States, the largest ocean liner constructed entirely in America and still the holder of the transatlantic round-trip speed record, has been laid up in Philadelphia since 1996. After a federal ruling, it must eave its berth at Philadelphia's Pier 82 in September 2024, after a federal ruling.

The SS United States has long been an unlikely tenant on the Delaware River: Neither the conservancy nor its landlord expected the boat's berth by the Ikea to be permanent.

But until 2021, the unlikely marriage was much more amicable. That year, the landlord Penn Warehousing hiked the rent by double.

The SS United States Conservancy declined to pay, arguing first in letters and then in court filings that they’re model tenants who’d dutifully paid the same $850 a day they'd agreed upon more than a decade ago — and that their lease with Penn Warehousing had no provisions for sudden and unilateral rent hikes.

Lawyers for operators Penn Warehousing & Distribution argued the historic ship’s owners owed back rent in the full amount, and that the ship caused damage to the pier.

In the background, according to the text of the court ruling, officials from the Port of Philadelphia had leaned on Penn Warehousing to remove the SS United States, saying the ship had damaged the pier.

The eviction notice arrived in the same year that the port, run by an independent agency of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, announced vast plans for an expansion and total overhaul of PhilaPort.

In their 2022 lawsuit against the ship, Penn Warehousing sought both eviction and hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent. SS United States sought to stay, and continue to pay the lower rent they'd agreed to in 2011.

Neither got what they wanted.

In a tightly argued ruling, Judge Anita B. Brody said the ship's conservancy did not have to pay a higher rent they never agreed to, and it owed no back rent. But the ship also was not allowed to stay forever, against Penn's and PhilaPort's wishes.

And so, the historic SS United States will now have 90 days to get out.

The SS United States' future is now in jeopardy

On June 20, spokespeople for the SS United States Conservancy issued a call to arms to donors and others who care about the future of the last great American ocean liner.

"Our goal with this campaign is to save this great symbol of American pride and innovation. We have very little time, and we face many challenges, but we draw energy and inspiration from the SS United States' own resilience and enduring ability to bring people together,” Gibbs said in a statement.

Susan Gibbs, president of the SS United States Conservancy, poses for a picture on the deck of the ship docked in South Philadelphia on Saturday, May 6, 2023.
Susan Gibbs, president of the SS United States Conservancy, poses for a picture on the deck of the ship docked in South Philadelphia on Saturday, May 6, 2023.

For more than a decade, the conservancy has pursued plans to set up the ship as a floating attraction, much like the Queen Mary, a British ocean liner with an equally troubled financial past, which just reopened to the public as a hotel and museum in California in 2023.

Previous owners of the ship tried to turn the vessel into a time-share cruise ship, a Hawaiian passenger liner, a floating hotel, a casino, an offshore entertainment complex or a hospital ship.

All plans for the SS United States so far have fallen through, including those of the conservancy, which has launched fundraiser after fundraiser just to keep the boat moored on the Delaware River.

In 2023, USA TODAY Network reported from the decks of the ship, as Gibbs laid out her belief that her nonprofit could save the ship by turning its more than 500,000 usable square feet into a floating hotel complex, to be moored in whatever major U.S. city could accept it.

“The vision is a hotel, an event space — with really amazing food and beverage opportunities, as the developers like to call it,” Gibbs told USA TODAY Network. “Like a Mad Men-style lounge. As well as, of course, a museum and innovation center.”

Earlier this year, the conservancy released an optimistic vision board showing the possibilities if the ship were to be taken to New York. But those plans take time, Gibbs stressed. And time is what the SS United States no longer has.

“Our search for a new temporary or permanent location has been ongoing and began well before the litigation, but if a dock cannot be found in the coming weeks, we’ll be forced to commit to reefing or scrapping the vessel,” stated Warren Jones, a member of the conservancy’s board who once rode on the ship as a passenger.

Conservancy spokespeople say the ship has faced adversity again and again, and remained above water. The nonprofit has petitioned President Joe Biden and other elected officials to help save the ship — but if the president is interested, he hasn't said so publicly.

Last year, Gibbs outlined the simple case to keep the ship in existence.

“There is no other American ocean liner left,” Gibbs said, while standing atop the ship’s highest deck last year. “She was the greatest ship in her day, and she remains so now. And it's just so important to preserve our history as a nation.”

Matthew Korfhage is business and development reporter who can be reached at to mkorfhage@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Historic SS United States is evicted. Where can America's flagship go?

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