The SS United States took a long, roundabout route to get to Ocean City.
The ship, which still holds the world record for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing by an ocean liner, actually sits now as a rusting ghost of its formerly grand self at a dock in Philadelphia. It has been a curiosity-generating part of the city's Delaware River waterfront since 1996.
So that's where Kevin Husta, of Hammonton, went last April to take a photographic tour of the historic cruise ship in its current state of disrepair. And Husta has friends and fans of his photography at the Ocean City Arts Center, where one of his pictures was a prize winner in a 2012 show.
One fan is Jack Devine, who happens to be the Arts Center's president. Devine suggested Husta should take that tour of the retired cruise ship and bring back an exhibit of his pictures to Ocean City. Husta was surprised, to say the least, that the suggestion for a local show came just a week or two before Husta was invited "out of the blue" by the SS United States Conservancy - which now owns the ship - to go on board for a tour with his camera.
Husta actually had contacted the conservancy to ask about shooting on the ship, but that was several years earlier, and the group politely said no, "for insurance reasons," Husta recalls. The SSUSC did offer to leave his name on a waiting list, though, where it stayed long enough for him to basically give up on the idea - until both the Arts Center and the conservancy brought it up to him again within a few weeks of each other.
So the photographer figured he should take the hint and shoot the ship, even though he has plenty to keep him busy these days. He and his wife, Erin, have two daughters - Kendall, 2, and Everly, who's set to celebrate her first birthday in a few days. Plus Kevin has a day job in "fiber-optic cable engineering," he says.
"Photography is more of a hobby," he says. "I don't tell people I'm a professional, but I say I'm a very enthusiastic amateur."
And now you can see the results of his enthusiasm and his eye and his visit to the SS United States on the walls of the Ocean City Arts Center's gallery through the end of this month. The show, which opened last week, also includes memories written by people who were passengers during the ship's brief but popular run as the fastest creature on the seas.
Some of those recollections come from people with Ocean City connections. Peggy Lloyd, who lives in town, celebrated her 100th birthday last year, but she still recalls being on the United States in 1952 - the year it actually set that speed record by crossing the Atlantic Ocean in just three days and 10 hours.
Lloyd remembers her ride on "a wonderful ship and a beautiful ship," she says. "They said, 'We're running for the record.'"
And there was plenty of excitement on the United States' maiden voyage when it set that record, recalls Billie Carroll, another passenger on that crossing.
Carroll, who splits time between homes in Ocean City and West Chester, Pa. - and sometimes catches a glimpse of the ship as she crosses the Delaware on the way from one to the other - sent in excerpts of the diary she kept on her trip with 10 college friends and one chaperone.
Now here's the conclusion of her official report from July 6, 1952: "Newsreels and photographers galore! Music, flashbulbs, champagne, lots of celebrating for a record-breaking crossing."
Carroll, now 80, says friends of her generation understand the historical significance of the ship. But she doesn't think many younger people do.
Carroll went to the exhibit's opening in Ocean City, "And we were saying that people now don't realize that in the old days, you took a ship rather than a plane (to cross oceans). This ship could get you there quicker than the others, but who's going to take a ship when you can go on an airplane?"
And that basically sums up the United States' short history as a working vessel. It started its life and set its record in 1952, but by 1969, it was out of business - because the age of crossing the ocean on the ocean had ended. Its keepers note that it has now been docked on the Delaware for longer than those 17 years it carried passengers.
"That poor thing is sitting there, rusting away," Carroll says. "It's not like it once was."
And Husta's pictures document that decrepitude very well - particularly as a contrast to some of the SS United States memorabilia that's also part of the Arts Center's exhibit. That includes a multi-course dinner menu featuring selections of "Hors d' oeuvres; soups; fish; entrees; roasts; vegetables; cold dishes; salads; desserts; cheeses" and more.
It includes an actual passenger list from a 1958 trip when one first-class gentleman was "H.R.H., The Duke of Windsor." (That abbreviation, by the way, stands for "His Royal Highness.") And it includes a Life magazine detailing the grandeur of the SS United States, complete with a full-color, pull-out centerfold spread.)
Other famous passengers included the late Grace Kelly - who was of course world-famous as a Hollywood star and Princess of Monaco, and locally famous as a regular Ocean City visitor - and Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe and Walter Cronkite.
But Husta saw only the after-side of the ship's life, so his mainly black-and-white pictures show what time and rust have done to it. He also is very exacting about showing that artfully, to the point of making the frame for each picture by hand, out of recycled wood - but painting that wood with a series of coatings to give it a metallic look.
That's partly as a tribute to the ship's designer, William Francis Gibbs, a naval architect and marine engineer who insisted no wood be used in his masterpiece - although he made an exception for a Steinway grand piano built of fireproof mahogany. (By legend, Gibbs bent on that safety rule only after the piano passed a test by not burning - even when it was doused with gasoline.)
Husta says he also tried to evoke the rust of the current United States with the mottled-metal look on his frame coatings.
But he isn't only hoping to document destruction with this exhibit. All his pictures are for sale, and despite the fact he had to pay $200 to join other photographers on the ship last year - and despite his own young and growing family - Husta plans to donate some of his sales to the conservancy for its "Save Our Ship" campaign.
The United States' maintenance and insurance alone run to roughly $80,000 per month, but the SSUSC says its grand plan is to convert the ship into a "mixed-use development and museum complex in New York, Philadelphia" or another East Coast city. Those uses would include "event space, restaurants, retail offerings and a boutique hotel," the conservancy says.
The group estimates it would need about $300 million to make that dream come true - and it has raised not quite $7 million so far, to buy the ship and save it from being sold for scrap metal.
"But even if it's only a little something, I'm still going to try to help out," Husta says. "It's just not right that it's only worth the scrap value - to be turned into I-beams."
And again, this photographer has fans in Ocean City. So does the United States.
As he led a tour of the photo exhibit last week, Devine, the Arts Center's president, pointed to one Husta picture he knew had already found a buyer.
Because, he was happy to say, "I actually bought this one myself - as soon as it went up."
Contact Martin DeAngelis:
If You Go
Kevin Husta's pictures of the SS United States will be on exhibit through Feb. 28 in the Ocean City Arts Center, at 1735 Simpson Ave. Free. Hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday. For more details on the exhibit, call 609-398-7628609-398-7628 or see oceancityartscenter.org. For more information on the ship or its history, see ssusc.org