It's been a long and difficult berth for the SS United States. Since 1996, the magnificent ocean liner has been suspended in shabby dormancy, docked on the Delaware River in South Philadelphia while stewards work out plans for its restoration and reuse.
Built for luxury and for speed, it fulfilled both ambitions spectacularly after a maiden voyage in 1952, breaking records for eastbound and westbound Atlantic crossings while ferrying presidents, immigrants, and royalty, real and Hollywood. It was taken out of service in 1969, its propellers dispersed, and has led an itinerant life ever since.
Whether the SS United States Conservancy can hatch and sell a viable adaptive reuse is not yet clear, and, with a national board of directors, the ship's fate likely rests in another port, probably New York.
But it has persistent advocates - among them David Macaulay, the illustrator and writer, who has put the ship at the center of a forthcoming book, tentatively titled Journey Across the Atlantic. On Thursday, the author of popular books including Cathedral and The Way Things Work will speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia about his SS United States project, on which he has several more months of work before publication by David Macaulay Studio, an imprint of Roaring Brook in New York.
Simultaneously, an exhibition about the ship's history and future opens at the Independence Seaport Museum. (Another advocate is Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, an owner of Interstate General Media, who has donated $5.8 million to the cause.) The British-born Macaulay, 67, answered a few questions in advance of his visit.
Peter Dobrin: How did the SS United States first come to your attention?
David Macaulay: My mother, younger sister, and brother, and I sailed on it [from Southampton to New York] in 1957 as immigrants starting a new life in the United States. My father flew. It's been in the back of my mind ever since. I have a picture of the ship on the wall of the studio and have had an unbuilt plastic model for years. It's now built.
Q: What led you to conclude it would be a good subject for your book?
A: I had intended to do a book about invention, but when it turned into an encyclopedic prospect, I looked for a single item that would allow a more focused aspect of "invention." At which point I noticed the picture on the wall.
Q: Have you been aboard recently, and, if so, when, and what did that feel like?
A: I've been aboard a couple of times in the last year. They were my first visits since 1957. Seeing it gutted wasn't so terrific, but fortunately my memories are so old and unreliable the shock wasn't what it could have been. My favorite memory is of my mother opening the porthole to get fresh air into our cabin - favorite now because, as it turns out, the portholes on B deck are permanently sealed with clear glass and always have been. She got her "fresh air" from the light! The fact that every cabin had air conditioning is great until you remember that to us, "air conditioning" was opening a window. I'm sure my mother never once adjusted that gadget on the wall.
Q: Is the SS United States the sole subject of this book? Or is it about ship design or engineering in general looking at a number of ships?
A: The book is really about crossing the Atlantic under steam power - the transition from sail to steam and from wood to iron to steel, etc. It's about speed, I guess, but more importantly about the possibility of knowing not only when a ship would leave a port but also when it would arrive at its destination. The little things that mean a lot to passengers. So I follow [English civil engineer Isambard Kingdom] Brunel's ships, the Servia and Campania, and then, in the 20th century, the big ocean liners, all making slight improvements but mostly just shortening the trip by a few hours at a time and culminating with the triumph of the United States.
Q: What kind of approach does your book take: Does it focus on design, history, cartography?
A: The focus is on changes in the engines, how steam power was used with increasing efficiency and how changes in materials and construction methods and the arrival of electricity, oil, elevators, etc., all played a part in the selling of these floating "high speed" hotels.
Q: What do you imagine for the ship's next phase in life?
A: This is the hardest question. I don't really care how the ship is used as long as it is appropriate to maintaining its appearance. It's the look of the ship that still gets me. It still says speed and bigness. I'm not sure how important either of those things actually is on its own, but when remembered in the context of the post war 1950s, the ship represents a vision of America filled with promise. . . . So it can be low-income housing complete with a pool and day-care center. It can be a school of design and technology. It can be a one-of-a-kind shopping center, a community health clinic, a conference center - it doesn't matter as long as the appearance is maintained and the object is kept alive for future generations to wonder about. We need reminders of where we've been, for better and worse, especially as we wander further and further into a cultural and social no-man's-land.