By Brian J Pape, AIA
I’m sure many of our readers are familiar with the existence of hospital ships for years, so why not a hospital ship for the west side of lower Manhattan?
The SS United States is a retired ocean liner built in 1951 for the United States Lines. The ship is the largest ocean liner constructed entirely in the United States and the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic in either direction. Designed by American naval architect William Francis Gibbs, he was inspired by the British liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, according to Wikipedia. Construction was a joint effort with the United States Navy and designed to be converted to a hospital ship or a troopship if required by the Navy. Extensive use of aluminum meant significant weight savings, and it had the most powerful steam turbines of any merchant marine vessel at the time, delivered to four 60,000 lb., 18-foot diameter manganese-bronze propellers. One of the four-bladed propellers was mounted at the entrance to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, but is now at Pier 76 in New York City, while another is mounted outside the American Merchant Marine Museum on the grounds of the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York.
The SS United States maintained an uninterrupted schedule of transatlantic passenger service until 1969. The ship’s fittings were later sold at auction by new owners, and hazardous wastes throughout the ship were removed, leaving it almost completely stripped by 1994.
Since 2009, a preservation group called the SS United States Conservancy had been raising funds to purchase the ship, and now to save the ship for a new use.
In March 2020, the commercial real estate firm RXR Realty of New York City announced its plans to repurpose the ocean liner as a permanently moored 600,000 sq. ft. hospitality and cultural space along Pier 57, at its original home port of New York. That plan seems dead in the water.
THE HOSPITAL OPTION
Repurposing the SS United States as a hybrid of entertainment attraction and hospital ship at one of the Hudson River Park piers would serve many needs, foremost being the need for a full hospital in our area. A hospital ship at one of the Hudson River Park piers fits the theme and history of the waterfront, as evidenced by the numerous historic vessels permanently docked alongside their piers.
Although earlier estimates for the restoration as a luxury cruise ship was said to be “as much as $700 million”, repurposing the ship as a hybrid of entertainment attraction and hospital ship could be less, and could create a revenue stream to compensate the expense.
In any case, the high price for land alone for any building in the area would certainly exceed $200 million, perhaps by a great deal more.
And just think of the fun destinations the defunct funnels can provide: observation towers for tourists, night clubs far from the functions below decks, and ventilation stacks for all the critical care units.
But Pier 57 is not the only possible berth. If that pier doesn’t work out, Pier 40 has been looking for new uses for years, and has the advantage of vehicular ramps serving all levels, including the roof; a ‘Plan B’.
(Pier 86, another former United States Lines passenger pier still exists, although the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid is permanently berthed at the pier.)
Then consider Pier 75 and 76, formerly the United States Lines Terminal. Recently redeveloped as a flat open space where the Police Tow Pound was housed, Pier 76 would allow ample space for ambulances and other vehicular access next to the hospital ship. Although it is further uptown at 34th Street and Javits Convention Center and Hudson Yards, it might be a potential ‘Plan C’.
Brian J. Pape is a citizen architect in private practice, serving on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee (speaking solely in a personal, and not an official capacity), Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, is a member of AIANY Historic Buildings and Housing Committees, is LEED-AP “Green” certified, and is a journalist specializing in architecture subjects.
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