Few symbols of power and national confidence are as concrete as the skyscraper — or the ocean liner. Now all but forgotten, grand ships such as the SS United States epitomized the spirit of the American Century.
"It was a time," says Philadelphia author Steven Ujifusa, "when Americans thought big ... and 'made in the USA' really meant something."
Ujifusa, 33, is the author of A Man and His Ship: America's Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the S.S. United States (Simon & Schuster, $29.99), which chronicles the life of one such innovator, Philadelphia native William Francis Gibbs, who designed and built one of the greatest and fastest ocean liners to cross the Atlantic.
Ujifusa, who lives near Rittenhouse Square, will discuss the book Thursday at the Independence Seaport Museum.
The SS United States, which has been out of commission for four decades and is currently docked in South Philly, was a 2,000-passenger luxury liner "designed to be extremely safe — it was fireproof and had virtually no wood — and she had the speed and maneuverability of a Navy destroyer," says Ujifusa, an independent historian and writer who makes his book debut with A Man and His Ship.
Sleek and ultramodern in design, the 990-foot-long masterpiece (stand it up end to end and it'll rise just shy of the final 10 stories on the Empire State Building) weighs 53,290 gross tons and, in its heyday, could reach a top speed of more than 40 knots.
It was launched on July 3, 1952 and, in its maiden voyage, broke the speed record for an Atlantic crossing, becoming the first American ship to do so in nearly a century.
The vessel's technical superiority was matched by its comfort.
"It was described as the floating Waldorf Astoria," says Ujifusa. "If you went to first class on any given trip, you'd be likely to run into Salvador Dalí, John Wayne, the Kennedys, Marilyn Monroe, former President Harry Truman."
During its 17 years of service, the SS United States became as much a symbol of the American Century as George Roebling's Brooklyn Bridge, says Ujifusa, noting that Gibbs quite deliberately named it the United States. It was de rigueur in the age of the ocean liner.
"This is a time when ocean liners bore names that represented national pride," says Ujifusa. "The French ships were named Île de France and Liberté, Germans named theirs Vaterland and Europa, the British, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth."
Ocean liners and all things maritime have been a lifelong passion for Ujifusa, who grew up in Chappaqua, N.Y., and has lived in Philly since he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in 2003.
"I've been fascinated [by ships] ever since I was a little child and my grandmother told me stories about the Titanic," the author says. "I was 6 years old and I remember my grandmother telling me about the trip she and my grandfather took on the SS United States in the 1960s."
Ujifusa says he first laid eyes on the ship in 1996, when he was visiting prospective colleges in the Philadelphia area.
"We were on the Walt Whitman Bridge and my grandfather pointed it out and said, 'Hey that's the ship!'?"
Ujifusa's interest grew as he learned more about Gibbs' almost obsessive quest to get the ship built.
"I really could relate to him," he says of Gibbs. "He really represented that American idea of overcoming great odds to make something magnificent and tangible. A self-created man, very much like Frank Lloyd Wright or John Roebling."
Most of all, Ujifusa says, he loved Gibbs' attention to detail and his insistence that he be involved in every aspect of his grand project.
"Gibbs was the Steve Jobs of his day," says Ujifusa, referring to the founder of Apple Inc., which forever changed personal computing.
"He was a guy who wasn't necessarily a great engineer himself, but, like Jobs, he knew what he wanted and that he wanted his work to look beautiful, well-built."
Adds Ujifusa, "he was an engineer with a soul of an artist."
Born to a wealthy Philadelphia family in 1886, Gibbs was sent to Harvard, where his father, financier William Warren Gibbs, expected him to study law.
Gibbs was more interested in engineering and was able to follow his dreams after the family suffered a financial disaster. "[Gibbs'] father went bankrupt after a series of business deals," says Ujifusa. "In 1910, Gibbs had to drop out of Harvard and get a job to support the family."
Out of disaster comes determination, says Ujifusa. "That is what gave [Gibbs] his drive and determination."
Always the good son, Gibbs went on to earn a law degree at Columbia University in New York while also teaching himself engineering.
"In 1913, he began work at a New York law firm, but he hated it," says Ujifusa.
All the more determined, Gibbs "began making sketches for a grand ocean liner," Ujifusa adds. "It took him 40 years to build it."
Within a few years after leaving the law, Gibbs cofounded a shipbuilding firm in the early 1920s with help from a famous Navy admiral named David W. Taylor. "He had no real background in the field and no training and no funds, but he founds the company anyway," Ujifusa says.
Gibbs' dream became a reality because of the enormous reputation he earned during World War II, after he came up with a successful system of mass-producing cargo ships for the U.S. Navy. "They built around 2,500 of them by the time the war ended," says Ujifusa. "His work earned him a place on Time [magazine's] cover."
Using his connections, Gibbs was able to persuade the Navy to put up two-thirds of the $78 million it cost him to build the United States. Ujifusa says Gibbs designed the ship so it could be used in wartime for long-distance troop transport, able to carry 14,000 soldiers a distance of 10,000 miles without refueling. It was never called into military service. And after 17 years, it was retired. "Jet aircraft quickly took passengers away from the ocean liners," says Ujifusa. "And the military pulled their funding, since they were using planes, too."
Since its retirement, the United States has been thoroughly stripped, reduced to its bare hull. But it was saved from the scrap yard in 2009, when Philadelphia media entrepreneur and philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, a partner in the company that owns The Inquirer, helped the United States Conservancy buy the ship.
Based in Washington, D.C., but with an office in Philly, the conservancy was cofounded by Gibbs' granddaughter, Susan Gibbs, who applauds Ujifusa's book for bringing attention to the ship. Susan Gibbs says the conservancy is in the process of raising funds and forming partnerships with area museums to turn the ship into a historical and artistic attraction.
"It will house a shipping museum with exhibits on ships of historical significance," she says. "But it also will provide a broader look at innovation in American design. ... It'll look forward as well as backward."
Susan Gibbs, who left a career in international relations to devote her time to the conservancy, says the SS United States could inspire Americans to move beyond our current malaise.
"This is America's flagship," she says. "It's such a unifying and inspirational symbol, particularly now in a time when so much divides us."