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SS United States: Historical Background

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

I thought you'd like some context behind the ships I've been painting. The historical information in this blog post was written and researched by Cara Schneider Bongiorno of Philly History Pop Ups for our presentation during Philadelphia Open Studio Tours.

Image source: An interesting article from the SS United States Conservancy comparing this ship to the Titanic.


Known as America’s Flagship, the United States was designed by architect William Francis Gibbs for two purposes: to be a luxury liner, and in case the U.S. were drawn into another war, she could be converted into a fast, massive troop carrier. For that reason, the government paid for ⅔ of her construction and kept details of her design a secret.

United States completed 800 transatlantic crossings in the 50s and 60s. Her first in 1952 still holds the record for fastest passenger line crossing: 3 days, 12 hours and 12 minutes.

Safety features included a double bottom, backup engines and complete fireproofing–like Philadelphia itself–thanks to a restriction on wood. Kitchen butcher blocks and five Steinway pianos were the only wood allowed on the ship. The pianos were made of a flame-resistant mahogany tested publicly by Theodore Steinway himself.

As for star power, passengers included Grace Kelly & Prince Ranier, Coco Chanel, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and the Mona Lisa. Walter Cronkite sailed her to cover the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and a young Bill Clinton took her to England for his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford.

Sadly, the SS United States retired from service in 1978, after which she went through a handful of owners. She's been mothballed in South Philadelphia since 1996.

Photo credits: Wayne Yanda

These paintings were based on photos that I took of this ship from afar. I had to peep at the bow through a chain link fence across a large expanse of pavement. The photographer who took the pictures in this post, Wayne Yanda, works with the SS United States Conservancy, so he was allowed much more intimate access.

While giving this presentation with Cara during POST, two of the attendees told me that they were members of the Liberty Sailing Club and offered to take me sailing so I could see the portions of the ship not visible from the shore. Of course I took them up on the offer! I'm currently working on more paintings based on my observations of the starboard side stern as viewed while sailing on the Delaware River.

To see more of my paintings inspired by the SS United States, click here.

"The SS United States, once known as the “queen of the seas,” has called Pier 82 in South Philly home for about 25 years. A rent dispute with its landlords threatens to leave the ship without a berth."

Read the full article, published in The Philadelphia Inquirer by Ximena Conde on February 31st, 2023

To donate to support the SS United States Conservancy, click here.

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