Jim Pollin throws lifeline to the crumbling ‘50s ocean liner SS United States

Chevy Chase businessman Jim Pollin was at a function aboard a boat on the Delaware River three years ago when he spotted an aged ocean liner rusting at a pier on the Philadelphia waterfront.

He was floored. Pollin, a longtime cruise industry executive, knew immediately that it was the SS United States, once the maritime pride of the United States and one of the fastest liners ever built.

As he looked at the ship’s condition, he began to cry.

Tuesday morning, Pollin, son of the late Washington philanthropist and sports team owner Abe Pollin, announced a $120,000 gift to the District nonprofit group that owns the ship and boost to the campaign to save the liner from the scrap yard.

A donation ceremony was held Tuesday aboard the historic vessel, which has been idled at the Philadelphia pier for the past 17 years.

Pollin, 55, said Monday that the sight of the bedraggled old ship moved him to do something. He said he had seen another famous liner, the French-built SS France, later renamed the SS Norway, “destroyed” for scrap.

He wanted to avoid that fate for the SS United States.

“The United States is our flagship,” Pollin said. “This is like the Washington Monument, like the Jefferson Memorial. It’s part of our history.”

His donation is going to the SS United States Conservancy, the ship’s owner, which is headed by Susan L. Gibbs, 52, granddaughter of the vessel’s designer, William Francis Gibbs.

The conservancy was about to sell one of the liner’s huge propellers to raise money for docking, maintenance and insurance fees, which can run up to $60,000 a month, Susan Gibbs said.

Pollin is also offering a matching grant of up to $100,000.

Tentative plans are to move the vessel to New York, where it could serve as a museum and other uses. The conservancy estimates that the move and the initial phase of development could cost $10 million to $25 million.

The liner has been on the verge of oblivion for years, and numerous attempts at resurrection have failed.

But in its day, with its dark hull and distinctive pair of red smokestacks trimmed in white and blue, it was considered one of the handsomest ships afloat.

On its maiden voyage in 1952, it made the east-west Atlantic crossing in a record-breaking three days, 10 hours and 42 minutes, the conservancy said. It went on to carry presidents, movie stars, artists, royalty and immigrants.

But with the rise of travel by jetliner, the age of the ocean liner faded. The SS United States ceased service in 1969, the conservancy said.

The ship went through a series of owners and in 2011 was bought for $3 million by Gibbs’s conservancy with a donation from a Philadelphia philanthropist.

Gibbs said Monday that Pollin’s donation “buys us crucial time and gives us a fighting chance to save this vessel for future generations.”

This story has been updated.

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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