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Dispute between SS United States Conservancy and Penn Warehousing has historic ocean liner facing eviction

SS United States Conservancy in South Philadelphia faces eviction
SS United States Conservancy in South Philadelphia faces eviction 04:41

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- The SS United States sits tied and parked at South Philadelphia's Pier 82. The once grand ocean liner is simultaneously knotted in a legal mess.

Its fate lies in the hands of a federal judge who could decide the ship must be booted due to hundreds of thousands of dollars in outstanding fees.

Based on timing, such a move could leave the conservancy that owns the 990-foot boat in need of finding it a new home, possibly sinking it for good.

"We're in a race against time," said Susan Gibbs, the conservancy's president and granddaughter of the ship's designer. "We're hopeful. But the clock is ticking."

CBS Philadelphia was invited aboard the boat. The boat was designed in the late 40s.

The work being done to save historic SS United States Conservancy in South Philadelphia 03:52

The SS-U.S. was intended to quickly move troops in the event of war but it wasn't needed and instead became a cruise liner.

"Initially, it was the fastest way to go to Europe," Gibbs said. "It was the fastest ocean liner when there were no alternatives."

Most of the ship's interior compartments have been cleared out and a labyrinth of asbestos was removed.

The vessel is longer than the Titanic. Its maiden voyage was in 1952 and crisscrossed the Atlantic for 17 years, carrying presidents, dignitaries and entertainers.

"There was lots of wining and dining along first-class passengers," Gibbs said.

Conservancy board member Warren Jones at seven years old was a passenger on the SS-U.S. His mother, snapped a photo in 1961, as the ship was untied by crew and bound for Europe. He and others desperate to save the boat realize time is no longer on their side.

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"That is the urgency right now is finding a temporary dock for the ship," Jones said.

The ship has been in South Philadelphia since 1996.

Its rental agreement with Penn Warehousing and Distribution started in 2011 — the ship docked for $850 per day. In 2021, rent doubled to $1,700.

A complaint filed in federal court shows the conservancy has since failed to pay the higher rent but a conservancy attorney argued the higher rent was never negotiated with them and was raised unilaterally and improperly.

They've argued the lower rent should have applied until the ship was removed.

Penn Warehousing sued and the matter ended up before a federal judge in what was a two-day trial last month.

It's alleged the outstanding dockage fees are now in excess of $731,000.

Board members with the conservancy acknowledged the ship must move, and they said a plan is ready to roll. They tell CBS Philadelphia they'll move it as soon as a new home is found.

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"What we hope will happen to this ship is she will be towed into dry dock and resurrected as a gorgeous, mixed-use museum development, hotel event space and can be reborn as the American icon that she has been," Gibbs said.

"Walter Cronkite loved this ship and once said 'If this ship is lost, it's a crime against history,'" Jones said. "Let's not commit a crime against history. It's time to save it. It's idled for long enough."

A ruling from the federal court is expected soon.

An attorney for Penn Warehousing declined to comment while they await the court's decision.

If timing doesn't work out for the ship's relocation, it's possible what is known as contingencies one and two could be activated.

"If this ship is evicted, it would have to be scrapped or reefed," Jones said.

Meaning sunk to the ocean bottom along a reef system.

"There is no alternative — given the size of the ship," Jones said.

Fingers are crossed this ship will set sail to a new lease on the water beyond this South Philadelphia pier.

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