New York City-based firm RXR Realty will analyze the potential for converting the 1950s luxury liner SS United States into a mixed-use development and maritime museum, according to the nonprofit group that owns the ship.
For more than 20 years the liner has been tied up at Pier 82 in Philadelphia, changing owners until the SS United States Conservancy acquired it in 2011. In 2016 Crystal Cruises, a high-end cruise operator based in Century City, Calif., considered buying the ship to return it to passenger service, but concluded that was not feasible after a $1 million study.
“Over the next several months, RXR Realty will be working to determine the viability of the SS United States’ redevelopment and will explore a range of potential locations for the historic vessel,” wrote Susan Gibbs, the conservancy’s executive director, in a Dec. 10 message to the group’s supporters.
“In connection with its work, RXR will be paying a substantial portion of the ship’s carrying costs and making other investments during this option period,” Gibbs wrote. “The company will soon be assembling a team to assess the vessel's interior spaces and explore concepts for the ship's revitalization. The Conservancy will work closely with RXR throughout this process and will continue to advance and refine our museum and curatorial plans.”
Restoring the ship for use as a stationary mixed-use development and museum in its old homeport of New York or another coastal city has long been a goal of the conservancy. While the Crystal Cruises proposal did not work out, the company donated to the conservancy all of its technical feasibility study findings, showing how the SS United States remains “remarkably intact and structurally sound.”
Once the epitome of American maritime engineering prowess, the 992’x101’ liner was the world’s fastest passenger ship when it entered service in 1952, clocking a trans-Atlantic crossing at a sustained 35 knots, powered by Babcock & Wilcox boilers and Westinghouse geared steam turbines. The liner was subsidized by the U.S. government, and capable of rapid conversion to a troopship. With World War II and the battle of the Atlantic a fresh memory for U.S. defense planners, it was thought the SS United States could sealift reinforcements to a new confrontation in Europe while outrunning the danger of Soviet submarines.
Capable of crossing the Atlantic in three and a half days, the ship was a popular ride with celebrities of the day. But in time the SS United States like other trans-Atlantic liners faced mounting competition from the growing airline industry, and it went out of service in 1969.
The ship wound up in Philadelphia in 1996, and proposals for reuse followed over the years. The conservancy has envisioned the ship restored for an educational mission, combined with creative commercial use such as hotel or tech businesses. In 2014 the group said it was close to such a deal in New York, and it has been seeking real estate partners again since Crystal Cruises backed out of its plan.
RXR Realty has experience in repurposing historic structures, and Gibbs called it “a respected, highly qualified commercial real estate developer.” The company currently manages 69 commercial real estate properties and investments with an aggregate gross asset value of approximately $18.1 billion, comprising approximately 24.6 million square feet of commercial properties, including a residential portfolio of approximately 2,600 units under operation or development.