Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Final Bow

By Robert Hudson Westover
Chairman Emeritus, S.S. United States Foundation

S.S. United States Foundation's
1999 "Save the United States"
advertising campaign won several
design awards.
Seeing the film Titanic when it was released in December 1997 proved to be pivotal moment for me. That’s because watching Mr. Cameron’s near exact replica of the 1912 White Star ocean liner reminded me of another ship I had adored, imagined and built (the Revel model that is!) as a child. A ship whose very name made me feel patriotic.

The S.S. United States.

Titanic made me want to know where the S.S. United States had gone. I went on (what we called then) the World Wide Web and discovered (to my delighted surprise) that America’s flagship was very much still afloat and a former passenger, Mike Alexander, had started a Website to bring awareness to her plight.

That following January I went to visit the United States for the first time. I could hardly sleep the night before! I felt like a little boy going to Disneyland for the first time! I’ll never forget seeing her red, white and blue funnels for the first time that day. Her sleek profile. Her dramatic and cutting bow.

She was weather beaten for sure, but where others saw discouragement and a badly decaying vessel I saw hope and a glorious restoration like the RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach, CA.

I was 33 years old and full of excitement and possibilities. I didn’t care that the herculean task of saving this ship would take years of my life. I didn’t care that many other interests where vying with their own visions--and, sadly, personal self-aggrandized agendas.

I just knew I could do this.

And I began by starting an organization I named the S.S. United States Foundation.

I’m not going delve into the details--the impossible odds of creating and leading one of the largest all volunteer preservation non-profits in the country--because this amazing story has been covered in many news stories and in books.

Safe to say, the attention I sought to bring to the ship via the SSUS Foundation, went well beyond anything I could have imagined. For the first time since the ship won the Blue Riban for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean (and her untimely retirement in 1969) her story appeared in the New York Times, then the BBC World News Service, then ABC World News Tonight and on and on.          (Click on video below)

This constant national and international media attention began in April 1999 and has never let up.

With success came attention and many now wanted to become part of what had been a few, but highly devoted, Big U (her nickname) fans in varying fields of expertise from advertising, public relations, media relation, maritime and legislative-based professions.

The SSUS Foundation's greatest accomplish happened when we lead the effort and succeeded in placing the S.S. United States on the National Register of Historic Places when she was less than 50 years old. This "less than 50 years old" is important because we had to prove the Big U met the National Register's stringent “National Significance” criterion.

We did and the Big U was placed on the National Register in June 1999 resulting in another round of national attention including a prime time broadcast on CNN. (Click on video below)

But soon the reality of having to actually convince a municipality to take her in as a Queen Mary type attraction set in. Meetings were held with elected representatives but no one seemed to grasp (or have the vision) of what a huge tourist attraction the SS United States could become—a classic problem in preservation efforts.

Then the owner, who had allowed the SSUS Foundation free and near unfetter access to the ship passed away. She was sold to NCL and the Foundation’s noble vision to see the S.S United States preserved as a monument to her splendor (and being able to keep her on the National Register) seemed lost.

Then everything changed.
The official logo of the S.S. United States Foundation.
The Foundation's confrontational approached to NCL’s renovation plans didn’t sit well with some members of the board of directors.

In the ensuing heightened climate of profound ideological differences a new non-profit, the S.S. United States Conservancy, was created (or reemerged from an existing organization as some would insist) and they succeeded in purchasing the United States from NCL after the cruises line abandoned its renovation plans.

Not long after the remaining board of the SSUS Foundation voted to suspend any further activities and to not compete for our vision of preservation.

Since that time I have maintained a social media presence as a fascinated spectator of the SSUS Conservancy’s efforts to bring their vision of the Big U to fruition--I even donated my last royalty proceeds from the book SS United States Fastest Ship in World (Turner) to the Conservancy. And until their recent announcement about the deal worked out with Crystal Cruise Lines I was as unaware of their vision as anyone else.

Cover to the successful book
SS United States Fastest ship in the World (Turner)
Let me be clear. I cannot begin to express my profound disappointment in the future chosen by the SSUS Conservancy for this great historic site.

To me the plans are an abomination of what I, and many others feel, was the epitome of ship building. And I realize many feel differently but I very much disagree with the argument that all that matters is that she sails again.

Sails as what?

To me it’s analogous to giving Queen Elizabeth a Hollywood-style face lift, collagen lip injections, massive Dolly Parton-esque breast implants, a tummy tuck and a rear-end lift, put her in a red, skin-tight beaded dress and parade her around with the Kardashian sisters.

Yes, what a comical and ridiculous site that would be and what horrid last visual memories of a great queen!

Yet, I’m supposed to feel that what is planned for the S.S. United States is any different?

Well, I can’t.

Now that the board of the SSUS Conservancy has made their choice to, what I strongly feel, eviscerate the remaining historic integrity (as I believe is clearly spelled in the requirements for historic designation by The National Register of Historic Places), I will suspend any involvement in and abandon my watch as a preservationist seeking to protect this amazing relic of maritime greatness.

Good-by once great Queen of the Seas.

I did my best to save you.


Jay Anderson said...

Your good deeds will not go unnoticed sweet, noble man. Thank you for all that you have done!

Mark B. Perry said...

Would you really rather see her scrapped and forgotten than reimagined? Is keeping her on the National Register more important than preserving her in a viable and profitable way? You well know the complexity and challenges of trying to save a 990 foot ocean liner. As you once so passionately advocated, the bottom line is that if we lose her, she will be quickly forgotten as a footnote in our nation's history by all but a handful of hardcore enthusiasts. A reborn SS United States will be a traveling museum and ambassador keeping her name, history, and legacy alive, and will continue to introduce new generations to the incredible story of this irreplaceable icon--a goal we all shared at one time. In short, sour grapes are best served as champagne, and there is much cause for celebration. For a more positive point of view: https://markbperry.wordpress.com/2016/02/08/ship-of-stars-reborn/

Robert Westover said...

Mark, I'm sorry you see it as "sour grapes." When it comes to historic preservation, yes, I'm puritan for sure--especially when the subject is so unique--and you of all people should know what is the motivation of my heart. I own a home on the National Register of Historic Places. Believe me there are times when I wish we could just gut the place and have complete modern living, but then I realize what a unique a precious purpose I (we, that is my husband as well!) have in being really just the stewards of a treasured legacy estate in our community. If, in my understanding, Crystal Cruises were planning to truly honor the history as it still exists in the United States' remaining structure, I would be more than thrilled for all you and your organization had accomplished. But that, in my estimation, is entirely not the case. Mark, I have always admired your dedication to the history of the glorious past (as it relates to trans-Atlantic ocean liner travel) and your integrity to keeping accurate history preserved. But to intimate that somehow petty jealousy and revenge is my motivation proves you have never really known me or my motivations. I came to my decision with a heavy heart--not a heart filled with animus. I don't think that way and never have. I was raised with the Calvinist principle of doing as much good as one can in life and to give blessings for cursing--anyone who is close to me knows that is my core being and what animates me. So, Mark, just for clarification purposes, here is the truth within my heart: Now that the Conservancy has embarked on a course of action, I vehemently disagree with, I wish them success in the creation of their new ship. But I will never refer to her again as the SS United States.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Robert, thank you for everything you have done to save this ship. You, Dan, and everyone else involved with the S.S. United States Foundation deserve recognition for all of your efforts. I was and always will be 1000% against the ship returning to service and I'm glad it didn't happen. One, if Crystal Cruises, a Chinese-owned cruise company would have succeeded in buying the ship, the Jones Act would automatically disqualify the S.S. United States to flying under the United States flag. You cannot have America's Flagship flying under the Chinese flag. It would be a total disgrace to our country and everyone who designed, built, worked and traveled on it... Which is something that some people refuse to acknowledge because they didn't think it mattered. IT DOES MATTER a 1000%... Two, the cruising industry investors wanted almost 50% of the ship scrapped, in favor of a new stern section, superstructure and god only knows what else they wanted done. I wouldn't be surprised if they demanded the ship's Red, White and Blue stacks to be scrapped as well. And, last but not least, any agreement that is done on US soil with a foreign company can automatically be voided in the company's homeland. Which means they can do whatever they want with it, scrap it, alter it and the conservancy would have no say. The only way that can be prevented is if a contract that applies to both the US and China are written up and to be honest, I doubt that was going to happen.

This ship's career as an active ocean liner is over and it deserves a better purpose, and a better future. WATERFRONT STATIONARY ATTRACTION. Period...

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