The S.S. United States, Then and Now

Then and now, a look at the SS United States and its sister ship the SS America

When I was younger my dad and I built a three-inch-long model of the SS United States luxury liner that even lit up. The model sat on my parent’s living room bookshelf long after I had moved away. Below is the SS United States soon after its construction in 1952.

SS United States, 1952

Shown below in its current state rusting away docked in South Philadelphia.

SS United States, current day

The architect of the SS United States was William Francis Gibbs.

The ship’s mid-century modern interiors were designed by Anne Urquart and Dorothy Marckwald of the firm Smyth Urquart Marckwald.

It was truly a big deal in the late 1940’s to depart from a more traditional Victorian interior as seen in most ships until that decade. Marckwald also designed the inteior of the SS United States’ precursor, the SS America ,in the late 1930’s, and it hinted at this modernism as well. Another term used by the interior designers at that time was “Hollywood Modern”. They wanted the ship’s interiors to be more “American”.  

Architect William Gibbs was born in Philadelphia in 1886. With an undenying passion for ships, he studied engineering at Harvard, but left to obtain a law degree from Columbia in 1913. Gibbs ultimately stopped practicing real estate law in 1916 and somehow with the financial backing of J.P. Morgan Jr. he convinced the U.S. Navy that he could refit the Vaterland, a confiscated German ship, and turn it into a state of the art combination luxury liner and troop transporter. The new ship’s name was the Leviathan and made several troop transport runs to France during WWI, even though tragically the world wide pandemic of 1918 ran rampant amongst the troops on most of its voyages. Death was common and suffering of flu symptoms affected both nurses, doctors, and of course the troops themselves on every voyage including the young Franklin Roosevelt.

Gibbs later ventures on to build the SS America and the SS United States. (As a side note, the new interior of the Levianthan was comprised mostly of fine woodwork, something later Gibbs prohibited in the SS United States).

In the 1930’s, after Gibbs became successful in the design and construction of ships, he formed a new company called Gibbs and Cox, whereupon in the mid 1930’s he had his first opportunity to design what he considered the fastest ocean liner ever built, the SS America, the precursor of the later 1950’s SS United States.

SS America, 1938

A young Dorothy Marckwald designed some of the 1930’s modern, and striking interior of the SS America.  She described the interior of the ship as being simple and comfortable in an “American Way”, or in her other words as “Hollywood Modern”.

SS America lobby and smoking room

Unfortunately, the SS America came to a devastating end, worse than its sister ship that was towed from its then owners in Greece to its new owners in Thailand. The intention was to turn the SS American into a tourist hotel, but it was sadly hit by a storm in the Atlantic Ocean and crashed into the shore in the Canary Islands, where it eventually broke into two and rotted away. By this time the interior had been gutted and removed and sold off to the highest bidder.  

Remains of the SS America

After WWII, Gibbs became even more obsessed with designing a ship with speed. When the opportunity arose to design the SS United States he took it. The team of Urquart and Marckwald again designed the interior. The United States set a speed record that still stands today: from New York to England in 4 days and 10 hours. The ship sailed at 38 knots, 44 miles per hour.

Below depicts a luncheon with the architect Gibbs (left) and the engineers who designed the SS United States. Elaine Kaplan (third from left) is one of the first female engineers to work on the design of luxury liners. Kaplan designed the propulsion system employed in the new ship.

Kaplan had traveled to England on the SS United States when she attended college therein 1963. The SS United Stateslast voyage was in 1966. Thereafter it no longer became financially feasible to operate in competition with air travel.

Below is a look at the ship’s interior in its current state, which is empty as it has been stripped and sold off and sits docked in South Philly.

SS United States, then and now
SS United States, then and now

The fate of the SS United States is undetermined. There is a concerted effort to sell or restore the ship through fundraising efforts of the SS United States Conservancy.

Blog post written by David Tritt, Senior Architect.

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