It’s a new year, and Penn Warehousing is seeking to lose some weight. Around 53,330 tons from Pier 82, to be exact – as a bench trial has commenced over dock fees regarding the troubled liner SS United States
Things are looking bleak for SS United States; North America’s ill-forgotten cruise icon. Following decades of conservation efforts tailored to prevent the vessel from being scrapped, a decision is soon expected regarding her current home – Pier 82 in Philadelphia. The SS United States Conservancy revealed that litigation has been raised against them over a rent dispute with the ship’s current landlord – Penn Warehousing. A bench trial (where the ultimate decision is undertaken by a sole judge, rather than a jury) kicked off on Wednesday January 17, in Philadelphia’s U.S. District Court.If the judge rules in favour of Penn Warehousing, then SS United States will effectively be made homeless. Should the Conservancy default on the landlord’s demand for payment regarding a retrospective rent increase, the ship could be scrapped. And, quite frankly, that would be a travesty.
SS United States photographed leaving New York, back in the ‘glory days’. Credit: SS United States Conservancy
SS United States: A quick summary of events
Once known as ‘Queen of the Seas’ and ‘America’s Flagship’ now better known as the ‘Ikea boat’, the SS United States has faced uncertainty since her service was cut short by United States Lines back when Richard Nixon was president.The liner was sent for her annual overhaul in late 1969, upon which the announcement was made to withdraw her from service – blaming the U.S. government’s discontinuation of vital operating subsidies amid skyrocketing expenses. This decision subsequently halted all refurbishment works, leaving various tasks incomplete, before the ship was effectively shuttered.All of her fittings, furniture and uniforms remained in place among the darkened rooms and stagnant cabins. Once the official holder of the coveted Blue Riband and boasting of near-impenetrable architecture, it was a sad climax for – arguably – humanity’s greatest achievement in ship design.SS United States was subsequently subjected to a series of turbulent years between different ports and ambitious owners, until the ship’s contents were auctioned off in 1984 to pay creditors. Eventually seized by US Marshalls, the ship was put up for auction by the U.S. Maritime Administration on April 27, 1992.The new owners had the liner towed across the North Atlantic towards Turkey, before arrival in Ukraine’s Sevastopol Shipyard. It was here that her asbestos was removed and interiors were stripped down to the bulkheads. Lifeboats and davits were also scrapped.Although re-purposing plans were proposed, no firm deal could be acquired and SS United States was towed back across the Atlantic to South Philadelphia in June 1996, where she has remained. The ship was later placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
The fate of SS United States now rests within the courtroom. Credit: Shutterstock/RRM
So what’s all this court action about?
Following a failed venture where Norwegian Cruise Line bought the SS United States with plans to make her seaworthy, The SS United States Conservancy was created in 2003 to save the ship from a date with the breaker’s yard. This conservation group has been stuck in a year long dispute over rent for Pier 82, where the ship is currently berthed.Penn Warehousing leased Pier 82 (along Christopher Columbus Boulevard) to the Conservancy for $850 per day, until the rate was doubled to $1,700 in August 2021. Yet, despite the daily dockage fee increase, the Conservancy instead continued to pay the previous rate as set by the contracted agreement last amended in 2011. Penn Warehousing therefore terminated the lease in March 2022, leaving the ship in limbo.
Craig Mills, the attorney for Penn Warehousing, described the conservancy as unproblematic until landlords requested amendments to how the ship was secured in place, claiming that damage had been caused to the pier and bollards.“They were every landlord’s nightmare,” Mills has been quoted, showcasing that the Conservancy refused to pay inflated rent, and would not leave when Penn Warehousing voided the lease agreement citing back rent.
The amount owed in rental arrears now totals $730,000 (£576,000), with Penn Warehousing’s legal team requesting the judge’s order to pay all past-due bills, repair the pier and its bollards, and leave Pier 82.Attorneys for the Conservancy argued against this request, focusing their statements on the language used within the berthing agreement – which laid out the daily rent of $850 “continuing until upon removal of the vessel from its current location.”
Further evidence questions whether the 2011 agreement is a lease in perpetuity, and whether Penn Warehousing can terminate the lease under these circumstances.
This notion was fronted after the Conservancy’s legal team highlighted the landlord’s rent increase was implemented without discussing the procedure with the current owners of the ship – The SS United States Conservancy – or having legal mechanisms in the agreement where rent can be raised unilaterally.It was also pointed out during the first day in court that any notice of rental increases from the landlord only mentioned rising costs. No mention of damage to the pier or bollards was mentioned.
SS United States is currently at risk of eviction from Pier 82. The scrapyard could await. Credit: Wikicommons
Will the SS United States be scrapped?
The outcome of the judge’s decision could see SS United States remain in place, or evicted in a course of action that would likely witness America’s flagship force-fed to scrap merchants. A fate as brutal as her sister ship, the SS America.
Conservationists have claimed that the landlords of Pier 82 wish to seal the fate of an American icon, making fabricated claims in court of pier damage and prolonged defamation of character in pursuit of extra cash, effectively utilising lawyers and the legal system to bully SS United States into oblivion.
Christened in 1952 as the ultimate feat of American engineering prowess, the ship was once the ultimate Transatlantic fashion statement. Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Alfred Hitchcock brought Hollywood glamour to the passenger list, while royalty and top-tier business individuals kept SS United States in the headlines. Not to mention JFK and his wife. Future President Bill Clinton, a vocal supporter of the ship’s preservation, was a passenger in 1968 – and he still raves about the liner. The ship broke the record for crossing the Atlantic and could transform into an indefatigable military weapon at the drop of a hat. The whole ship was designed to be fireproof in a futuristic design unseen even by today’s standards, rightfully earning a place in history, let alone the National Register of Historic Places.
Yet, those glory days are gone. Following her unceremonious gutting back in the 1990s, the hulk has provided a permanent shabby-chic fixture upon the Philadelphia skyline for more than 25 years. In that time, the SOS has been sent to avoid the scrapyard, with global supporters sending vast amounts of cash in aid of the ship’s plight.A harsh blow to the Conservancy landed in 2015. The possibility of making her functional as an ocean liner was firmly quashed following an investigation, leaving the SS United States with only one viable option – to become a floating hotel, tourist attraction and business centre; as the ex-Cunard Queen Mary and QE2 currently reside.
Plans were floated late in 2023 for relocation as the ‘new Queen Mary’ to New York, but according to Penn Warehousing’s legal team – “All of its potential partners walked away”.
Continuing the attack, the team explained that the berthing agreement was worded in such a fashion because “nobody knew when the ship would leave Pier 82.”
SS United States on her sea trials, June 10, 1952. Here she reached her highest recorded speed ever, 38.32 knots (44.1 mph). Photo courtesy of Charles Anderson and the SS United States Conservancy
When will we hear a verdict?
In short, it doesn’t look good for the SS United States should ruling fall in favour of Penn Warehousing, a judgement call that is strongly expected. U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody made her suggestion ahead of what’s expected from Thursday’s (January 18th, 2024) decision, with a resounding “I think you may have to settle”.She warned that there would only be losers in this case if she had to decide between an eviction notice for the ship, or continued rental agreements from the signed contract of 2011.Susan Gibbs – the granddaughter of the cruise ship’s designer, William Francis Gibbs – was asked during testimony if she expected the liner to remain at Pier 82 over a decade after signing the berthing agreement. Her answer was basically ‘no’, as it was never the plan to house SS United States at Pier 82 indefinitely.
She pointed towards the proven and viable redevelopment plan, but stated more time is needed to find a partner. That time may be much shorter than we hoped.
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About Calum Brown
Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians. As
a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood,
with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also
refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.
Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.
Appeared first on: Worldofcruising.co.uk