April, 2012 Archives


“Mild but Expensive Vulgarity”: Morris, Rockefeller Center, and the “Queen Mary”

by admin in Uncategorized

A 1938 recording of the Queen Mary’s dance orchestra.

While reading Daniel Okrent’s Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, I was surprised to learn that the designer of the original Queen Mary‘s interiors was an American architect (with roots in Philadelphia) named Benjamin Wistar Morris III. Morris came up with the initial design concept for Rockefeller Center in the 1920s, but was ousted by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his real estate team. Morris went on to work with the Cunard Line, designing not just the interiors of the Queen Mary but also the Cunard Building in New York and Patton Hall at Princeton University.

His Art Deco interiors for Great Britain’s national flagship were met with mixed reviews. According to one British critic:  ”The design and decor of her public rooms, her bars, and her restaurants, seem to have been aimed at dollar millionaires from the Mid-west and their opposite numbers in England who claim that, ‘Where there is muck, there is money.’ The workmanship is magnificent, the materials used are splendid, the result appalling.’”

A harsh assessment of the work of a man who considered himself to be an arbiter of good taste!

"Queen Mary" at anchor. Today, she is a floating hotel and convention center in Long Beach, California.

British Art Deco...or "expensive vulgarity"? Morris's first class smoking room aboard the "Queen Mary."

A watercolor by Benjamin Morris depicting the RMS "Queen Mary" before her launch, 1934.

Morris's sermon in traditional, collegiate Gothic taste. Patton Hall at Princeton University.

Morris's original design for Rockefeller Center from the late 1920s, which included a new home for the Metropolitan Opera.


A State-of-the-Art Sound System at Sea

by admin in Uncategorized

Click on the album cover to listen to samples and purchase a new recording of the Britannic's Welte symphonic organ.

This is nothing short of bizarre. And amazing. HMHS Britannic, the sistership to the Titanic and Olympic, was completed as a hospital ship in 1915 and sunk the following year by a mine off the coast of Greece.

Had Britannic entered commercial service, she would have been even more luxurious than her two sisters. Among the extra niceties White Star planned for their flagship was a custom-built Welte symphonic organ, which would have been installed in the first class grand staircase. A Welte symphonic organ was the Edwardian equivalent of a top-of-the-line sound system, found only in the grandest hotels and the mansions of the very wealthy. This organ was never installed on the Britannic, and it was recently found in Switzerland and restored to full working order.

Here is a recording of an instrument intended for the high seas, aboard Britain’s grandest liner.  Sadly, Britannic never made a single commercial voyage.

The Britannic now lies on her side in the Aegean Sea, a coral-encrusted wreck, but this fine instrument has survived for almost a century.

The band might have played for the Titanic, but for the Britannic, the pipe organ continues to play on!

His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Britannic at anchor. The enormous crane davits were meant to handle all the additional lifeboats that needed to be added following the loss of her sister Titanic. This great ship lasted less than a year before she struck a mine on the way to pick up injured troops from the Gallipoli campaign. She never made a commercial voyage. After the war, her never-installed interiors were auctioned off.

Britannic meets her end off the coast of Greece on November 21, 1916. Despite all the design refinements worked into her following the Titanic disaster, the ship sank in only one hour. Watertight doors jammed following the explosion, and seawater poured through portholes opened to air out the hospital wards. If she had struck a mine when fully loaded with 5,000 patients, the loss of life would have been much worse than the Titanic disaster. Out of 1,200 crew and hospital staff, 30 lost their lives.

Grandeur that never was. A rendering of the Britannic’s first class grand foyer and staircase, showing the Welte symphonic organ, which would have been installed on the aft bulkhead.
A sound system fit for a Gilded Age robber baron. A surviving Welte “orchestrion” organ in Henry Clay Frick’s “Clayton” mansion in Pittsburgh. These instruments could be played manually by a skilled organist…or mechanically via perforated rolls.
Henry Clay Frick could not just have one symphonic organ. He had to have two of them. Here is an Aeolian organ, located in his New York mansion, now the home of the world-famous Frick Collection.

Travel at your own Risk: Loading Up the “Lusitania”

by admin in Uncategorized

Excerpt from the recent BBC documentary Lusitania: Murder on the Atlantic. It is heavily based on the diaries of survivor Professor Ian Holbourn, Laird of Foula.

97 years ago, a small army of workers was swarming around the Cunard liner Lusitania, preparing her for a May 1 departure from New York. She the only large British passenger liner left in regular commercial service, the others requisitioned by the British Navy for trooping or hospital ship duty. Cunard was operating her as a “public service,” and she was making a mere one round trip a month.

At 31,000 tons and 788 feet long, she was one of the largest ships in the world, and the second fastest on the Atlantic. Her revolutionary steam turbines generated over 70,000 horsepower, and at full speed she could make over 25 knots. Built in 1907, Lusitania was built for speed and strength, as well as luxury. Her designers built her to the highest British Admiralty specifications, so that she could be easily converted into an armed merchant cruiser in the event of war. She not only had a double bottom and naval-grade steel plating, but watertight bulkheads running both parallel and perpendicular to the keel. In short, she was a luxury liner that had the strength of a battleship. Although commodious and well-decorated, Lusitania and her sister Mauretania were built primarily for speed. Unlike the newer and bigger liners from White Star and Hamburg-America, passengers never forgot they were on a ship rather than a land-based hotel. They rolled badly in rough seas. Engine vibration was a constant annoyance, especially in the second-class quarters, which was located directly above the ship’s four huge propellers.

The 1,200 passengers preparing to board the Lusitania on May 1 might have glanced at the New York newspapers to confirm their sailing times. Next to the Cunard advertisement, they noticed a warning from the Imperial Germany Embassy.

Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk. Imperial German Embassy, D.C., April 22, 1915.

German submarines had encircled Great Britain, attempting to starve the island nation into submission. Several months earlier, the German admiralty announced that they would attack any British ship suspected of carrying war material, without warning and not giving any time their crews time to escape as they had in the past.

Although convinced that no German submarine would dare attack a passenger ship, the Cunard Line took a few extra precautions to ensure the safety of the passengers. Lusitania’s signature red-and-black smokestacks were painted over in dull black. Once the ship entered the war-zone around the British Isles, stewards would draw all stateroom curtains, and passengers would be asked not to smoke cigarettes or cigars on deck at night.

Because of the wartime shortage of coal, the Admiralty cut the Lusitania’s fuel allowance, forcing Cunard to shut down one of her four boiler rooms. Because of her heavy construction and powerful turbines, Lusitania was always a hungry ship, burning 1,000 tons of coal a day in regular service. The smaller coal allowance reduced her top speed from over 25 knots to only 21, making her an easier target should a submarine captain dare to attack her. Usually able to cross the Atlantic in four-and-a-half days, Lusitania would now take a week to make it to Liverpool.

Yet for a ship this big and well-built, it seemed inconceivable that one torpedo could do enough damage to sink her.

In addition to passenger baggage and enough gourmet food stuffs for the ship’s three dining rooms to churn out 10,000 meals a day, stevedores loaded over 1,200 cases of shrapnel shells into her capacious cargo holds. This shrapnel was manufactured by Pennsylvania’s Bethlehem Steel Corporation. She also may have been carrying other items not listed on the official manifest: gun cotton, artillery shell fuses, TNT. The investment bank of J.P. Morgan & Company served as Great Britain’s principal purchasing agent for American-made ammunition.

In Germany’s eyes, this materiel was considered contraband aboard a passenger liner.

First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill had few qualms about using passenger ships to ferry war material to Great Britain, even if Americans were onboard.

In a secret memo, Churchill wrote, ‘It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the U.S. with Germany. For our part we want the traffic – the more the better and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.”

The Lusitania was not neutral. A a Cunard liner, she flew the British flag. But she would be carrying over 100 American passengers, including millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt and playwright Charles Frohman. Even if large American concerns such as J.P. Morgan & Company and Bethlehem Steel were aiding the British in procuring war material, the United States was officially neutral in the deepening conflict.

President Woodrow Wilson intended to keep America that way.

No doubt, most passengers boarding the Lusitania on May 1, 1915 felt ill-at-ease as they climbed up the gangway from Pier 54. Yet as they unpacked their luggage and lined the rails in preparation for departure, they probably decided it was best to put thoughts of the worst out of their heads, and treat the seven day voyage as a routine transatlantic trip.

As she approached the Irish coast on May 6, 1915, Captain William Turner received the following radio communication from the Admiralty:

“Take Liverpool pilot at bar and avoid headlands. Pass harbours at full speed. Steer midchannel course. Submarines off Fastnet.”

"Lusitania" at her New York pier, 1907.

Cunard sailing times and warning from the Imperial German Embassy, both run in New York newspapers on May 1, 1915.

"Lusitania's" two deck high first class lounge.

Second class passengers enjoy deck games on the "Lusitania" during one of her peacetime voyages.


The Astor Connection

by admin in Uncategorized

The young Vincent Astor.

William Francis Gibbs might have been the brains behind the SS United States, but Vincent Astor (1891-1959) provided the cash and the political heft. Vincent Astor, like Gibbs, was denied the chance to pursue formalized engineering courses by his father, New York real estate mogul Colonel John Jacob Astor IV. After his abusive father died in the Titanic disaster, young Vincent dropped out of Harvard to reorganize the family fortune.  His father’s death might have had a transformative effect on the eccentric young man.  In the years following the Titanic disaster, Vincent strove to transform the Astor family reputation, giving generously to charity and distancing himself from the aristocratic, haughty socialite tradition of his parents.  He was later described as a “hitherto unknown phenomenon in America: an Astor with a highly developed social conscience.”

By the 1940s, the gruff, aloof multimillionaire had evolved into a savvy venture capitalist, and was the largest single shareholder in the United States Lines. Astor also enjoyed a close personal friendship with fellow nautical enthusiast and one-time Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Passionate about machines and engineering, Astor not only sailed on the SS United States’s trial runs in May 1952, but also on the famous maiden voyage two months later.

Proud of his investment, Astor frequently sailed on the SS United States during the 1950s.  During one trip, Astor excitedly asked if the captain could “kick up her heels” so that she can pass the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth.  From a respectable distance, of course.  Astor died of a heart attack in 1959.

His third wife, Brooke Astor, gave most of the family fortune away to charitable organizations and cultural institutions.

Brooke Astor (1902-2007) must have been one of the best-traveled women in history. She not only sailed on the ships of her third husband’s United States Lines (most notably the United States and America) but also on dozens more during the first half of the twentieth century: Olympic, Conte di Savoia, Ile de France, Aquitania, Rex, Europa, to name only a few. Witness this humorous film.

Vincent Astor and his close friend President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, c.1935.


The Final 10 Minutes…and the Next 100 Years

by admin in Uncategorized

The final plunge scene from the 1958 film A Night to Remember, based on historian Walter Lord’s best-selling book. Although filmed before the confirmation of Titanic’s breaking in half, this classic British film remains the most historically accurate of all Titanic movies, and captures the event’s full pathos and tragedy.

At 2:05am, the last lifeboat left the Titanic, now way down at the head and sinking rapidly. The bow was awash, and black seawater was now pouring through the hatchways and open gangway doors. A group of crewmembers, led by Second Officer Charles Lightoller, was trying frantically to free two remaining collapsible lifeboats from the top of the officers’ quarters.

The eight musicians from the Titanic’s band stood outside the entrance to the grand staircase, and switched from ragtime to something more somber. Most likely, it was the English version of the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee.”

Two-and-a-half hours after striking the iceberg, the ship took a sudden lurch downward. By then, the 1,500 men, women, and children stranded on the ship realized the end was near and mass-panic ensued.

Charles Joughlin, a baker who had downed an entire bottle of whiskey over the past hour, hurled deck chairs to those who had already jumped into the sea.

The 18 lifeboats in the water, carrying just under 700 people, rowed away as fast as possible, to avoid the suction generated by the sinking of the largest moving object in the world.

Captain Smith probably remained on the bridge as it went under. Chief designer Thomas Andrews was last observed in the first class smoking room, staring blankly at the painting above the still-burning fireplace.

As the ship reared higher into the air, everything that could break lose was sent hurtling forward: steamer trunks, the purser’s safe, grand pianos, chairs, tables, a Renault limousine, Harry Widener’s rare book collection, dishes, sterling silver, boilers…

The generators then failed, and Titanic was plunged into darkness. Then, with a great booming, cracking sound, the ship broke her back and snapped in half.

At 2:20am, the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic sank beneath the calm, flat, freezing North Atlantic.

William Francis Gibbs, the future designer of the SS United States, then a 26-year-old law student at Columbia University, never forgot the Titanic disaster. Forty years later, he made sure that his dream ship could survive the damage that sent Titanic to the bottom of the Atlantic.

100 years later, 2 1/2 miles beneath the Atlantic. Traces of the human story remain amidst the rust and wreckage: the bow anchors, deck machinery, the enclosed promenades, packing crates in the hold, gates that blocked access of third class passengers to the lifeboats, corked champagne bottles, bridge equipment, lifeboat davits, the five-deck deep cavern that once was the grand staircase, crystal chandeliers hanging from their wires, the mantelpiece in the suite once occupied by Isidor and Ida Straus, brass bedsteads, the tiled walls of the Turkish baths, the stern fantail where so many waited for the end…

A Poem from “Titanic: Anatomy of a Disaster”

And so, I looked at the ship as she’s looming up.
And I thought, ‘Here is a gray lady,
an elegant lady, the queen of the deep.
A sad lady, a silent lady, are you now asleep?
Can we learn from your sorrow to share?
Teach us to understand and certainly to care.
But never again will there ever be a gray lady, an elegant lady, slip unwillingly, into the sea.

-Dr. Roy Cullimore

The “Titanic’s” band plays its final number.
The ship’s final ten minutes.

Alone in the first class smoking room, naval architect Thomas Andrews (played by Michael Goodliffe) awaits the end, looking at his watch as the ship plunges to the bottom. Within minutes, the power fails and the lights go out.

Isidor and Ida Strauss, co-owners of Macy's Department Store and leaders of New York's German Jewish community. Rather than be separated, they remained on the ship and perished together.


April 11-14, 1912: “On a summer palace on the seashore”

by admin in Uncategorized

When she left her final port of call on the afternoon of April 11, there were 1,300 passengers in three classes and 900 crew aboard Titanic.

The stokers sang songs as they shoveled coal into the ship’s hungry 29 boilers, 24 hours a day.  The boilers not only provided steam to the ship’s three engines, but also generated electricity for lights, ventilation, and the radio transmitter.

First class passengers could play squash and relax in the Turkish baths, take a dip in the plunge bath, read a book or newspaper in the lounge or library, smoke a cigar and play cards in the smoking room, and catch up on correspondence in the writing room.

If you really wanted a special dining experience, you could reserve a table in the ship’s a la carte restaurant on B-deck. Unlike the main first class dining room, dinner here was not included in the fare. And the food was not cheap.

After 6pm, full evening dress (white tie) was, as Colonel Archibald Gracie IV remembered, always en regle.

Here was a typical, 10 course belt-buster of a menu in the a la carte restaurant:

First Course
Hors D’Oeuvres
Second Course
Consommé Olga
Cream of Barley
Third Course
Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce, Cucumbers
Fourth Course
Filet Mignons Lili
Saute of Chicken, Lyonnaise
Vegetable Marrow Farci
Fifth Course
Lamb, Mint Sauce
Roast Duckling, Apple Sauce
Sirloin of Beef, Chateau Potatoes
Green Pea
Creamed Carrots
Boiled Rice
Parmentier & Boiled New Potatoes
Sixth Course
Punch Romaine
Seventh Course
Roast Squab & Cress
Eighth Course
Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette
Ninth Course
Pate de Foie Gras
Tenth Course
Waldorf Pudding
Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly
Chocolate & Vanilla Eclairs
French Ice Cream

George and Eleanor Widener hosted a lavish dinner party for Captain Edward J. Smith in the a la carte restaurant on the evening of April 14.  Their son Harry had more important things on his mind.  The young bibliophile could hardly wait to show his mentor Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach his latest purchase, a rare edition of Sir Francis Bacon’s Essays.

Second class passengers had use of their own smoking room, lounge, dining room, and spacious promenades. The decor of these rooms was as luxurious as first class on some older transatlantic liners. A part of the enclosed second class promenade had been set aside as a nursery for the numerous children traveling with their parents.

Among the second class passengers was Cambridge-educated school teacher Lawrence Beasley, science master at Dulwich College and grandfather of New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade. Beasley spent much of his time in the second class smoking room, a handsome, oak-paneled room that, like its counterpart in first class, was a male-only venue.

Third class passengers had a promenade area on the fantail, and amused themselves by having dances in the general room. For many, it was the first time they had ever seen a flush toilet.

In the meantime, Captain Smith steadily increased his ship’s speed from 20 knots to 22.5 knots, in spite of the fact that the engines had not yet been thoroughly broken-in. In addition, the wireless operators received several ice warnings from ships ahead of them.

J. Bruce Ismay, president of the White Star Line, knew that the Titanic did not have the ability to break the Cunard Line’s Mauretania’s 26.5 knot speed record set three years earlier. At full power (50,000 horsepower), Titanic could make 24 knots, but running the new ship at that speed for a sustained period of time would be uneconomical. But Ismay did suggest that the Titanic should try to break her sistership Olympic’s best transatlantic time set the previous year.

If they continued to add boilers to the ship’s engines, Titanic would reach her destination a day early, in the late evening of Tuesday, April 16, after a run of five and a half days from the western tip of Ireland to Sandy Hook at the entrance of New York harbor…

Although it was a pleasant and smooth crossing — the Titanic encountered no rough weather or fog — most onboard were ready for the journey to end.

After all, a transatlantic crossing was not a pleasure cruise; at the end of the day, it was about getting from one destination to another.

Interior tour of Titanic in Virtual Sailor.

The first class lounge, with decor inspired by the palace of Versailles.

The grand staircase, A-deck foyer, capped by a frosted glass dome. This staircase went down 5 decks.

For men only. The first class smoking room, paneled in mahogany highlighted with mother-of-pearl inlay.

The sitting room of suite C55-57, occupied by Isidor and Ida Straus of Macy’s Department Store.

The first class “a la carte” restaurant on B-deck. Meals in this venue were not included in the fare. It was here that George and Eleanor Widener hosted a lavish dinner party for Captain Smith on the evening of April 14.

The cooling room of the Turkish bath complex on F-deck, with its teak wood trim and ceramic tiling.

Shower and needle bath in the Turkish bath complex.

The very large second class dining room, paneled in oak.

The second class smoking room, haunt of Lawrence Beasley. Although not as grand as the one in first class, it was still spacious and handsome.

A second class stateroom, set up for family use. There were no private bathrooms in second class.

The third class smoking room, located under the poop deck.

Cramped quarters. A two berth stateroom in third class. It was a vast improvement over the open dormitories in the steerage sections of older ships.


April 10, 1912: Departure and Cross Channel Voyage

by admin in Uncategorized

Noon, April 10, 1912. Titanic, known by Wall Street as the “Millionaire’s Special,” departs Southampton, England, bound for Cherbourg, France to pick up continental passengers later that evening. The officers and crew are confused and unnerved by the ship’s size. Some second class and third class passengers are disgruntled because they had been transferred from other White Star liners laid up because of a coal strike.

A mere ten minutes after casting off, Captain Smith avoids a near-collision with the old liner New York, an accident that could have ended Titanic’s maiden voyage. He uses some skilled seamanship to wash the incoming liner away from his ship’s port flank.

Five years earlier, the finest captain on the Atlantic (then in command of the Baltic) boasted that his career had been “uneventful,” and he was “not good material for a story.” After departing Cherbourg, Titanic sets a course for Queenstown, Ireland to pick up several hundred third class passengers, where she arrives the following day.

The last surviving pictures of life onboard are captured by Father Francis Brown, SJ a vacationing priest making the overnight trip in first class. Father Browne and a few other lucky passengers disembark. He takes his camera and film with him…

Onboard are 319 first class passengers, 269 second, 699 steerage, and 896 crew. On this maiden voyage, Titanic is only about half-booked in all three classes.

9-year-old Frankie Goldsmith stands with his mother on the stern as Ireland fades into the sunset and the ship picks up speed.

“Mummy,” he says, “At last we’re on the Atlantic!”

Tugs ease “Titanic” into Southampton harbor.

The “Titanic’s” three huge propellers suck the small liner “New York” towards her port side, nearly causing a collision.

Father Francis Browne SJ captures a photograph of a young boy playing with a top on the aft-deck of the first class promenade.

Dinner in the first class dining room on the cross-channel trip on April 10, 1912. Photograph by Father Francis Browne, SJ.

"Titanic's" gym instructor T.W. McCauley demonstrates the equipment for Father Francis Browne, SJ.

Father Browne’s last picture of the “Titanic,” taken on April 11 from the departing tender bound for Queenstown.


A Philadelphia Teenager Remembers

by admin in Uncategorized

John B. Thayer was haunted by the disaster to the end of his life, especially by how it shattered his safe view of the world. His striking quote starts this 1994 A & E documentary.

John B. Thayer III, was a 17-year-old first class passenger on the Titanic, traveling with his parents. He grew up on Philadelphia’s Main Line and was then a student at the Haverford School.  His father was Vice-President of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad.  Thayer and his friend Milton Long jumped from the sinking ship just minutes before she went down.

John B. "Jack" Thayer III, University of Pennsylvania Yearbook, 1916.

He survived by standing atop an overturned collapsible lifeboat, barely escaping death from hypothermia.

Thayer’s mother Marian Longstreth Thayer escaped in a lifeboat, but his father John Jr. perished.

The sound of the cries of the 1,500 people struggling in the water seared itself into the memories of those who survived the disaster.

To 17-year-old Thayer, it sounded like the high pitched sound of locusts singing in the trees of their Haverford estate.

To 9-year-old immigrant Frankie Goldsmith, who as an adult lived near Navin Field in Detroit, it sounded like the cheering of the crowd when a batter hit a home run.

The lifeboats did not return to the scene of the disaster. “How could any human being fail to heed those cries?” an outraged Thayer wrote.

He went on to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1916, where he played on the cricket and soccer teams, and belonged to the Sphinx Senior Society.  After going into banking, he wrote a vivid account of the disaster for friends and family. This chilling paragraph serves as an important warning to the world of today.

“There was peace and the world had an even tenor to its way. Nothing was revealed in the morning the trend of which was not known the night before. It seems to me that the disaster about to occur was the event that not only made the world rub its eyes and awake but woke it with a start keeping it moving at a rapidly accelerating pace ever since with less and less peace, satisfaction and happiness. To my mind the world of today awoke April 15th, 1912.”

Jack Thayer’s parents: Marian and John B. Thayer Jr. Thayer’s father perished in the sinking. From Penn History, the University of Pennsylvania Library.

John B. “Jack” Thayer III took his own life in 1945, haunted by the death of his son Edward in World War II and by memories of the Titanic disaster.

Thayer's sketch of how he saw the sinking of the "Titanic." His observation of the ship cracking in half was confirmed in 1985 when the wreck was discovered.