SS United States Conservancy Reaches Deal to Explore Redevelopment of Famed Ocean Liner

SS United States

Photo: Brian W. Schaller

The SS United States Conservancy has entered into an agreement with commercial real estate development firm RXR Realty to explore options for the revitalization of the historic SS United States. 

According to the Conservancy, 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. In connection with its work, RXR will also be paying a substantial portion of the ship’s carrying costs and making other investments during this option period, including assembling a team to assess the vessel’s interior spaces and explore concepts for the ship’s revitalization. 

The SS United States, aka “America’s Flagship”, has faced an uncertain future in recent years. In 2015, the SS United States Conservancy, which owns the transatlantic liner, was nearly forced to the scrapping of the ship due to mounting costs, only to be saved by an outpouring of public support that helped the Conservancy raise an additional $600,000 to save the ship. The following year, Los Angeles-based Crystal Cruises reached an agreement to purchase the iconic 1950’s era vessel with the goal of converting it into a modern, luxury cruise ship in compliance with all modern safety, environmental, and technical standards. But ultimately that deal too fell through after a technical feasibility study determined that the plan was a little too far fetched. Crystal instead ended up donating $350,000 to the Conservancy to help with ongoing costs.

Now, RXR Realty will go through its own due diligence process, but both sides are hopeful that a plan can be reached to redevelop the ship. 

“The SS United States is one of America’s great vessels and an icon of American engineering and design,” RXR Realty says. “Given our history of repurposing and updating some of this country’s most historic structures, we are now working with the SS United States Conservancy to explore what options might exist for the ship, going forward. We are currently at the very beginning of this process – a process that will require substantial work on all sides. At the end of this period, we will have a better sense as to whether we have a viable plan and, if so, the specifics of that plan and in which waterfront community it might be actualized.“

The SS United States has been laid up at a dock in Philadelphia since 1996.

Time to Celebrate the Most-Traveled Cruise Ship Ever

Time to Celebrate the Most-Traveled Cruise Ship Ever
 Cunard’s historic Queen Elizabeth 2. (photo courtesy of Cunard)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Cunard’s retired Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liner, and the company plans to celebrate with a special cruise aboard its newer Queen Elizabeth.

“This mediterranean cruise is perfectly timed to pay tribute to QE2’s launch and naming by HRH Queen Elizabeth II 50 years ago,” said Angus Struthers, Vice President, Cunard, in a press release. “When QE2 came into service in the 1960s, many critics said she wouldn’t last a decade in the age of the jet, but her unique design as a dual-purpose ship meant that she was versatile enough to operate both as a transatlantic liner and a cruise ship.

“Given how famous and loved she was, we felt this was a great opportunity to pay tribute to this Cunarder remarkable life onboard our newest ship, Queen Elizabeth; herself designed to offer a perfect luxury cruise holiday.”

The Queen Elizabeth will sail from Southampton on September 8, 2017, on an extensive 17-night cruise honoring the company’s longest serving ocean liner. The modern vessel will visit Venice, Sicily and Corfu along the way.

Onboard festivities will feature five theme days, each with their own QE2-inspired menus, special guest lectures, daily program facts, former passenger get-togethers and quizzes.

Such days include “Moving in Royal Circles,” focusing on the connection between the QE2 and the Royal Family. “The Falklands” will look at the vessel’s use as a troop ship in 1982, and “Triumph of a Great Tradition” will explore its career and Cunard’s firsts. Meanwhile, “World Flagship” will showcase the ship’s 26 world cruises before “QE2 Day” highlights a ball as well as a retrospective in the Royal Court Theatre.

Captain Ian McNaught, QE2’s last Master will be among the special guests scheduled onboard for the Insights Speaker program.

He said, in the press release, “This voyage is a significant and timely tribute to the world’s best-loved ship. QE2 remains the longest serving express liner in history. She carried 2.5 million passengers over 5.6 million miles; that’s further than any passenger ship – ever! This remarkable ship sailed alone on the North Atlantic for most of her career. She carried the Cunard tradition from the bygone era of the ocean liner and sustained it into the 21st century. The QE2 carried Royalty, celebrities and served in the Falklands War.”

Image result for qe2 falklands
British Soldiers on the way to the Falklands in 1982

He added, “What I remember most as her Master, were the passengers. Everyday people who saved up to experience life onboard the world’s best-loved ship. Many came back time and time again. That is a tribute to the countless people who served as QE2’s crew, each one making the experience special and memorable. QE2 has been gone for nearly a decade now, however, on her 50th anniversary the memory of her is strong. It is very fitting to be acknowledging the QE2’s remarkable career here onboard Queen Elizabeth.”

Other guests consist of Commodore R. W. Warwick, QE2 social hostess Maureen Ryan and maritime historian Chris Frame.

Although the QE2, itself laid up in Dubai, is not along the route, there remains some hope that the ship will see a second life in some capacity. It was originally taken out of service in 2008 and acquired for conversion into a hotel, not unlike the line’s other Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. However, nothing has yet become of the vessel as she remains permanently moored for the time being.

Cunard calls Queen Mary 2 renovation a ‘remastering’

The Queen Mary 2 in New York after a $132 million refurbishment. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin

ONBOARD THE QUEEN MARY 2 — Even royalty needs a facelift from time to time.

The venerable QM2 (if an ocean liner can be considered venerable at the age of 12) went under the surgeon’s knife earlier this year for a $132 million refurbishment that Cunard Line calls the ship’s “remastering.” It even has its own hashtag, #qm2remastered.

Cabins were added, a lounge was completely redone, the buffet restaurant was retooled and the ship was updated throughout.

The biggest change on the QM2 is undoubtedly the Carinthia Lounge, which takes the place of the Winter Garden just forward of the Kings Court buffet restaurant. Hotel director David Shepard called it “one of the most successful venues” of the remastering. “It’s become an extremely popular venue, day and night.”

The new Carinthia Lounge is busy with passengers throughout the day. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin
The new Carinthia Lounge is busy with passengers throughout the day. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin

I was a guest on the ship during its Aug. 9 eastbound transatlantic crossing, and I found that Shepard wasn’t exaggerating. At any time of the day, the Carinthia was busy.

People carried their lunch plates from the Kings Court or from a food station in the lounge itself; listened to live piano or jazz music; read or napped; knitted as part of a knitting circle overseen by one of the social staff; or admired the display of vintage ports going back more than 170 years. A bottle of 1840 Ferreira can be purchased for $4,445.

Shepard pointed out that unlike the Winter Garden, which had walkways straight through the room, the path through the Carinthia meanders just enough to cut down on the speed of walking passengers. And the color scheme of the room is a pleasing cream and blue, just right for slowing down and relaxing.

The Kings Court buffet also looks brand new. A new flow for passengers around the buffet makes things less crowded. Certainly it was bustling during peak breakfast and lunch periods, but I didn’t notice long lines at food stations or waits for tables.

Cunard created a bank of 15 cabins for single passengers on its second and third decks by reducing the footprint of the casino and photo gallery, respectively. I was a little surprised that Cunard shrunk the casino, but a smaller photo gallery makes sense, as almost every photo of every passenger could easily be found in an easy-to-navigate menu on about a dozen large touch-screen computers.

The iconic Britannia restaurant looks very much the same despite an extensive refurbishment. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin
The iconic Britannia restaurant looks very much the same despite an extensive refurbishment. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin

The Queen also has a new Deck 13 with the addition of 30 Britannia Club cabins.

In other instances, the remastering was subtle. For example, a pair of elevators was removed from the QM2’s Grand Lobby. My guide pointed out their absence; I’d totally forgotten about them. The room seemed just the same, if not more spacious and elegant, without the elevators.

For passengers dining in the exclusive Queens Grill, the restaurant was updated with comfortable new chairs and window treatments. Grillwork partitions edge out from the exterior wall at intervals, breaking up the room just so slightly. In the Queens Grill and Princess Grill, waiter stations were moved from the center of the room to adjacent to the galley entrances.

The cabins are in the process of being updated to slightly more modern lines. A fountain was removed at the entrance to the Canyon Ranch SpaClub.

The remastering video in our cabin showed a time lapse of the hull being scrubbed and repainted. My balcony on deck 4, which was cut from the hull, was clean and showed no signs of paint buildup. Technical and structural changes were also made.

The Kings Court buffet was completely redone. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin
The Kings Court buffet was completely redone. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin

But past passengers expecting a serious overhaul of the Queen won’t be in for a shock. Cunard Red will always be Cunard Red. The color schemes and formal touches remain the same, especially on decks 2 and 3, where the Britannia restaurant, Royal Court Theater and Queens Room are still the focal points of the evening. Guests still walk past the giant art deco panels on the wall on their way to the restaurant or Chart Room.

The formality and tradition of the transatlantic crossing remain intact. “It’s the sense of occasion for me,” Shepard said. “It’s all about a formal, memorable impression.”

During the cocktail party on formal night for Britannia-level passengers, the ship’s captain, Christopher Wells, quipped: “Cunard has spent 100 million … changing the carpets, ladies and gentlemen.”

That wisecrack got a lot of laughs, but there was plenty of new carpeting around the ship, including sunbursts on the elevator landings that were inspired by designs from the original Queen Mary.

The Queens Grill was updated with new furnishings. Partitions along the outside wall edge into the room to break it up slightly. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin
The Queens Grill was updated with new furnishings. Partitions along the outside wall edge into the room to break it up slightly. Photo Credit: Rebecca Tobin

A short documentary and time-lapse video of the remastering showed how much of the inspiration for the QM2 was taken from the Cunard archives.

For example, the Todd English specialty restaurant was replaced by the Verandah, a French restaurant that takes its name from the original Queen Mary. The concept has been updated, however. The original Verandah was available only to First Class passengers, while on the QM2 anybody can book a table.