Susan Gibbs, wearing a sleeveless blue dress and sandals, holds a small flashlight as she descends into the interior of her crumbling trans-Atlantic ocean liner.
“Watch your step,” says the maintenance worker leading the way.
Past the abandoned crew quarters they walk, their voices echoing, and into the cavernous room with the empty swimming pool, unused for 40 years. “Here we go,” she says. “Who wants to dive in?”
A District of Columbia resident, Gibbs once got lost wandering this ship. “It was so strange,” she says. “You can get disoriented.”
Farther into the gloom they descend, from C Deck to D Deck, then through a huge door like that of a giant refrigerator. “It’s over here,” she says - indicating a floor-to-ceiling metal box in the corner.
The ship’s morgue: two vacant bays, with doors ajar, and little slots for the name tags.
Of all the places on the rusting behemoth that Gibbs, 52, is trying to save from the scrap yard, the morgue may be the most pristine.
The rest of the 53,000-ton SS United States, which was designed by her illustrious grandfather, William Francis Gibbs, built at Newport News Shipbuilding, and launched in 1951, is a landscape of peeling paint, cobwebs and vanished grandeur.
The legendary vessel was 100 feet longer and 10,000 tons heavier than the Titanic. It was one of the fastest liners built and the epitome of the suave, modernist American style of the ‘50s.
But it has been out of commission since 1969 - killed by the advent of the jetliner. For many years, it was docked in Norfolk.
Stripped, bedraggled and moldering on the Delaware River for the past 18 years, the ship costs more than $60,000 a month just to keep docked.
Now, Gibbs, whose Washington-based SS United States Conservancy owns the ship, is fighting what may be the final battle to preserve it — as a tribute to a bygone era and, for someone, a moneymaking enterprise.
The dream is to fix it up so it can be moved to New York, its original home port, where developers could turn it into a museum, as well as exhibit, retail or living space.
But it could cost a fortune - upwards of $10 million to start and as much as $300 million, depending on how the ship is ultimately used.
The conservancy has owned the ship since 2011, thanks to a donation of $3 million from a local philanthropist, H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest.
Gibbs and her husband have contributed about $2,500 to the project. And Gibbs, as the conservancy’s full-time unpaid executive director, has devoted years to it.
The conservancy raises money through donations from the public, private foundations and corporations, and in other ways.
In June, as the group was about to sell off one of the ship’s propellers, cruise industry executive Jim Pollin, a conservancy member and the son of the late Washington sports team owner Abe Pollin, donated $120,000, with an offer to match $100,000 more.
But that money will go fast.
Although the conservancy is optimistic about its negotiations with potential developers, it has enough docking money only to last into the fall. If negotiations fall through and docking money runs out, it will have to sell the ship for scrap.
“It’s now or never,” Gibbs says of the situation.
A consultant for charitable foundations, Gibbs says she has taken on the task for posterity and as a way to mend her family saga.
Her grandfather was a legendary but now largely forgotten naval architect whose name faded along with the era of the great trans-Atlantic ocean liner.
Although a bronze bust of him now sits before the fireplace in her home off Washington’s Wisconsin Avenue, for many years she knew almost nothing about him.
His design for the SS United States was his masterpiece.
But she is also trying to save the ship for her late father, Frank, who died of brain cancer in 1995.
He was the designer’s eldest biological son, and he became a small-town radio newscaster. But he lived his life in his demanding father’s shadow, Gibbs said, and rarely spoke of him when she was growing up.
And she is doing it for herself. She said she has become entranced by the ship’s massive presence and has been moved by all the people who over the years have had connections to its story.
“This ship has to be saved,” she says. “It’s beyond me and my family. There’s a potency and a power that lives on. We can’t let it go.”
- - -
S.S. UNITED STATES
VERA CRAVATH GIBBS
. . . As I opened the door to the boat deck, I nearly had my head blown off, there was such a gale. There was wind, rain and fog. . . I struggled up forward and I found a good place behind an iron screen which is placed across the end of the deck. . .
. . . At this very moment we were tearing along at thirty-five knots!
Of course, the gale, the fog, the rain and dawn just breaking, made the official end of the run a fearfully dramatic moment.
By 6:15, I went down to the promenade and joined in the jollification. . . . There was dancing, singing, and finally, a snake dance up and down the deck. . .
The trip of trips was now drawing to a close.
When I look back on the weeks, months and years that W.F. spent on the U.S. I wonder how his optimism remained undiminished . . . why the well-spring of (his) enthusiasm didn’t dry up. . . .
It was July 1952, and New York socialite Vera Cravath Gibbs, the wife of the ship’s designer, was recounting in a diary the last festive hours of the SS United States’ first - and record-breaking - Atlantic crossing.
The sleek liner, loaded with 1,660 passengers, including the designer and his wife, had left New York at noon July 3 and dashed across the ocean in just under 3½ days, setting a record that still stands.
It was a triumph for W.F., as his wife referred to him, for his ultra-modern, steel and aluminum liner and for American shipbuilding and design.
Everything on the vessel, except for the hand-operated windshield wipers on the bridge, was modern: the cut of the bow, the engines, the four propellers - even the two huge smokestacks.
The decor was the latest, too. Upholstery was made of a fireproof fabric called Dynel, according to a book about the ship and its designer by Steven Ujifusa.
There was almost no wood. Trim and decorations were made of glass, metal and fire-resistant asbestos board, long since removed.
It was a $79 million “fairy palace,” Vera Cravath Gibbs wrote, according to Ujifusa - built to carry the era’s stars, politicians, artists and royalty in 1950s luxury.
And it would all soon be obsolete.
Growing up in Brunswick, Maine, a young Susan Gibbs often would visit her grandmother, Vera, at the seaside summer home her grandfather designed in Rockport, Massachusetts. He had died at age 81 in 1967, when Susan Gibbs was 5, and she has only vague memories of him as “a gaunt, tall, dour figure.”
The large bronze bust of him now her living room then sat on a pedestal in her grandmother’s living room.
“I was always kind of haunted by it as a little girl,” she said. “This austere gaze (that) was fixed on the horizon. . . . “
But in her household, her grandfather was seldom mentioned.
“With any story like his, where he was so focused on his . . . ships and his work, inevitably there was some collateral (family) damage,” she said.
She believes her father was a victim.
The ship was her grandfather’s true love, “and he would be the first to admit that,” she said. “That raises questions for his family, his wife, his sons.”
“For my dad, to have his father love something else more . . . and as a little boy who wasn’t perfect and who kind of messed up and didn’t do particularly well in school . . . it was tough fathering.”
But it was through her father that she eventually discovered the story of her grandfather.
After her father died, she was cleaning out his house and garage in Florida, looking for keepsakes of him.
Instead, she found boxes packed with her grandfather’s mementos. A portrait of him in his trademark fedora and wire-rim glasses on the cover of Time magazine. Profiles in Fortune magazine and the New Yorker, she said. Copies of his speeches.
Here was a man who, along with the firm he co-founded, Gibbs & Cox, had created designs used for thousands of ships over a career that lasted half a century.
She had no idea he was so famous. “This guy . . . was an American original,” she said she thought.
She wondered if any of his ships were still around.
Back below decks, near the morgue, Susan Gibbs poked around in the darkness by flashlight.
Near the floor, red, white and blue circular stickers with the words “United States Lines Tourist Class” were plastered.
“That’s interesting,” she said. “These are luggage tags.”
She thanked the maintenance worker for conducting the tour and headed topside.
She had said that while searching for her grandfather’s ships, she discovered that his only surviving ocean liner was the SS United States. It was docked in Philadelphia and was then owned by a New Jersey-based businessman who wanted to sell it.
In 2001, she and her husband and one of their children made a pilgrimage to see the ship. They got special permission to go on board and were stunned: It felt like a huge mausoleum, she said.
The once-glorious symbol of the United States had faded into neglect. It had been forgotten by everyone, she said, “including me.”
In the sunshine up on deck, one day earlier this month, the blue ropes holding the ship to the yellow mooring bollards on Pier 82 hung slack.
The great ship has been known to strain against its ropes in a stiff wind and is said to have once yanked out one of the bollards and flung it the length of the pier.
This day, though, there was only a light breeze blowing off the Delaware. Upstream, a modern freighter had backed into the river from its pier, and a barge glided north.
Overhead, jetliners whined as they headed for the international airport a few miles downstream.